Monday, 31 December 2012

The Books I Read In December

‘If The Dead Rise Not’ by Philip Kerr
It has been a while since I read a book by Philip Kerr. I was a fan of his original ‘Berlin Noir’ trilogy featuring the Berlin detective, Bernie Gunther, ‘March Violets’ (1989), ‘The Pale Criminal’ (1990) and ‘A German Requiem’ (1991) which despite being in this series, is actually set in post-war Vienna and has an embarrassing conceit in the Drittemann (i.e. Third Man) movie company featured. Since then Kerr has written a whole series of other novels for adults and for children before returning to Gunther with ‘The One From The Other’ (2006).

Before turning to the story itself, there are some problems that stem from the publishers, Quercus. For a start the cover of the book shows Gunther standing in front of the stadium in Berlin used for the 1936 Olympics. The tagline is ‘Berlin 1936. Sport, corruption, and violent death’. Whilst the book is set in Berlin and features all of those elements, it is actually set in 1934, rather than 1936. I had been surprised by the cover because ‘March Violets’ had been set at the time of the 1936 Olympics. It appears that the publishers have not actually read ‘If The Dead Rise Not’. It features corruption connected to Berlin winning the bid to host the Olympics and early construction of the stadium and other infrastructure but ends long before the event takes place; the first part of the novel finishes in 1934.

There are also editorial issues inside the book. I have noted before on this blog how editing even leading novelists has fallen away dramatically as publishing has faced such challenges. In this book there is a switch from ‘Labour’, the UK spelling, to ‘Labor’, the US spelling, when talking about the German Labour Front. I do not mind which is used, I just like consistency. The phrase ‘all right’ is used repeatedly when ‘alright’ is in fact meant. A common error in every book I have read mentioning the German police is that Kripo, i.e. the contraction of the word for the detective division, is written as ‘KRIPO’ and Schupo, i.e. the Prussian uniformed police as ‘SCHUPO’ as if these were acronyms, rather than portmanteau words. Portmanteau words are very popular in German and are created from putting some syllables together from a longer word or series of words. For example, Kripo actually comes from Kriminalpolizei; just as Nazi comes from National Sozialismus; the acronym is NS. However, I have never seen this aspect correct in English-language novels, bar my own, even though it is incredibly easy to find out online or in a history book.

The novel is in two parts, the first, as noted above, set in 1934, with Gunther serving as a hotel detective having left the Berlin Kripo on the Nazis purging the police force in 1933. The second part is set in Cuba in 1952; three of the characters appear in both elements. In the latter, we learn more about Gunther’s war record. The settings are very different and at first I resented the departure from Germany. However, ultimately it works. The book does appear rather fragmented at times and the thread does not feel as if it develops smoothly. The Raymond Chandleresque narration and dialogue is more apparent than in the original trilogy and is applied much more to the section in Germany than that in Cuba. Again this may reflect a lack of editing. Overall, as Kerr has always done with his historical detective stories, he paints a rich picture of the time and its places, especially contrasting rich and poor. He puts his hero into jeopardy and has him survive in a convincing way. There are interesting characters and he avoids making them into caricatures, subverting at times what we might expect for people from the times and places he shows.

Obviously I am biased in favour of stories set in Germany of the past, but this one is good enough to have rearoused my interest in Kerr’s work and to hunt it out. It is a better than fair novel, which if it had been published 10-15 years ago would have received the polish that would have made it a very good novel. I imagine Kerr despaired when he saw the covers and I hope it has been altered for subsequent editions.

‘Alternate Generals III’ ed. by Harry Turtledove & Roland J. Green
This is the best one of this series of alternate history collections. There are some duff stories notably, ‘First Catch Your Elephant’ by Esther Friesner which is a terribly laboured attempt to make comedy regarding Hannibal’s invasion of the Italian peninsula and is incredibly weak and frustrating. I was rather irritated by ‘Murdering Uncle Ho’ by Chris Bunch but that is simply because Bunch accurately writes his story in the style of US Vietnam War memoirs and fiction with emphasis on the military hardware and hard men. Consequently there is a lot of detail regarding the equipment and preparation of the attempt to assassinate Ho Chi Minh. However, behind this aspect there are interesting counter-factuals. President Kennedy was shot at but not killed in 1963 and won the 1964 election. This led to a far quicker escalation of US involvement in Vietnam leading to an invasion of the North in 1965 and occupation of its cities; civil rights legislation in the USA was neglected as a result. At the 1968 election, Republican Nelson Rockefeller was elected President rather than Richard Nixon, who in the story sees himself as a prospective candidate for 1972. In this respect it is a good US counter-factual which fits with my own views of Kennedy.

There are two stories around General MacArthur, ‘Not Fade Away’ is a low key story by William Sanders which sees MacArthur captured by the Japanese when they invade the Philippines. ‘I Shall Return’ by John Mina conversely sees a successful defence of the Philippines largely through sacrificing US air units to sink the Japanese invasion fleet. In this case, MacArthur’s success leads to him being transferred to Europe and Eisenhower remaining in the Philippines. ‘It Isn’t Every Day of the Week’ by Roland J. Green features a number of changes in the War of 1812 which lead to greater British success in the war, aided in part by Napoleon being restricted but not imprisoned at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814. Though the British are expelled from Louisiana they have greater success in the North and across the Great Lakes. The story is told in a series of letters from two brothers and also sums up attitudes of the time. ‘East of Appomattox’ by Lee Allred has some good ideas but could have been worked on to be more effective. It features General Robert E. Lee as a plenipotentiary of the Confederate States of America, in London seeking official British recognition for his country. This could have been handled better if Allred avoided the conceits, those little attempts at being too witty that undermine good stories. There is a whole rigmarole around Lee and a young civil servant and then Mycroft Holmes appears, though given the date, he would be a very young man at this time and certainly not the leading government official shown here. Lee is taken on a tour of London to see British opposition to slavery, the factor which is making the British unwilling to recognise the CSA. He is introduced to Abraham Lincoln, in refuge in Britain following his defeat in the American Civil War and then informed that Louisiana is seeking abolish slavery so it can trade with Britain, so putting the CSA to the test regarding the rights of individual states that itself challenged the USA with. This had good ideas but could have been done much better.

There are a couple of unusual stories. One is ‘Measureless to Man’ which envisages Genghis Khan having converted to Judaism and having to fight against Jews from the Diaspora seeking to assert their authority over what has now become the de facto centre of Judaism in Chengdu in China. Conversely, ‘A Good Bag’ is on a much smaller scale, though touching on alternatives that would have a global impact. It revolves around a séance hosted by Francis Younghusband, who in our world effectively enabled Britain to take control of Tibet. In this alternative he was the successful commander in the Tibetan-Chinese War of 1904. His influence and involvement with European racial supremacists is leading to an Anglo-German alliance in 1910 which threatens to unleash a racial war against Jews and other peoples. Moving into the fantasy genre, this was foreseen by the people of Atlantis who seek to warn Younghusband and get history back on to the path our history followed, still experiencing horrendous world wars, but avoiding the greater tragedies of this alternate path. The story has the feel of a Michael Moorcock story rather than standard ‘what if?’ stories. I could see it extended as a graphic novel.

‘The Burning Spear at Twilight’ by Mike Resnick is welcome as one of the rare counter-factual stories in English which features a different outcome for Africa. In this case Jomo Kenyatta is able to pursue a different policy in expelling the British from Kenya in the 1950s. Through manipulation of public relations he is able to get the British to leave sooner and though without bloodshed, with less than was the case in our world. Given that most people will not be familiar with this history and yet it is an issue in British courts at the moment, this is an interesting story. ‘Shock and Awe’ by Harry Turtledove, as the title suggests is another story with contemporary issues despite being set in the past. It envisages Jesus as the proclaimed King of the Jews, using Biblical quotations and leading a guerrilla war against the Roman occupiers who behave like contemporary US forces in Afghanistan. It is an interesting twist on the historical Jesus.

I have left my favourite stories to last. ‘A Key to the Illuminated Heretic’ by A.M. Dellamonica opens the collection. It sees Joan of Arc, rather than having been burnt at the stake, instead coming out of prison after 13 years to lead a heretical Christian army to expel Papal influence from France. Each section is initiated by description of a painting of Joan’s exploits by a young female follower. In this short story we get an interesting slice of factional disputes, Joan’s uncertainty about her mission, her ambivalent view towards the French monarchy and her role as a feminist icon even at the time. This story really impressed me. The remaining two are not as outstanding but are still strong. ‘The Road to Endless Sleep’ by Jim Fiscus, sees Mark Antony having been victorious with Cleopatra at Actium, ruling Rome with her as his empress. The story is told from the perspective of one of his bodyguards as civil unrest bubbles up against the emperor. ‘Over the Sea to Skye’ turns history on its head and sees Flora MacDonald help the Duke of Cumberland escape from Scotland following his defeat. In this world Charles Stuart took the guidance of his advisors and fought at a better location than Culloden, so was able to restore the Stuart dynasty to Scotland with his father becoming King James VIII. Not only is this grounded in an interesting counter-factual, but also is strong in giving a feel for western Scotland and the people there at the time.

Overall this book has a good selection of stories. I hope for future collections, authors can learn from the best and the worst of what is included in this volume and avoid some of the pitfalls that so undermine too many counter-factual stories.

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