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Some time back I wrote about the re-release of Helen MacInnes' spy thrillers set before, during and after World War II. I had read somewhere that they appeared slow paced compared to more contemporary WWII mysteries, which made me want to take a look at how writing about this era has changed over time.

I selected three other books set in the time leading up to and during World War II, The Eagle Has Landed (1975), by Jack Higgins, In a Dry Season (1999), by Peter Robinson and Mission to Paris (2012), by Alan Furst.

The Eagle Has Landed, by Jack Higgins

Thirty years after the war ended, Jack Higgins wrote The Eagle Has Landed. Unremarkable today, it was one of the first fictional representations of sympathetic German soldiers, including their leader, Oberst Kurt Steiner. It was made into a movie in 1976 starring Michael Caine as Oberst Steiner. Here is a scene from early in the film, where he rescues as Jewish woman from the SS. It is as a result of this action that he and his men (paratroopers) are court-martialled and sent to a suicide manned-torpedo base in the Channel Islands.



And that is where Oberst Radl, chief deputy to Canaris, finds him and offers him and his men a chance at redemption. Hitler's high command, knowing that Hitler admired the rescue of Beninto Mussolini by Otto Skorzeny, decides that it would be fitting for the Abwehr (German military intelligence) to capture or kill Winston Churchill. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris head of the Abwehr, is tasked with developing a feasibility study for an attempt. Canaris sets his deputy Oberst Radl to work on it.

Radl discovers that Germany has a spy in Studley Constable where Winston Churchill will be visiting for a weekend in November, 1943 and realizes that there is a remote (very remote) possibility that the mission could actually work. In addition to Kurt Steiner and his paratroopers, Radl recruits Irish Nationalist, Liam Devlin, who makes his debut appearance in this novel.

This fast paced thriller reflected its era, which was one of the anti-hero as well as one of strong anti-war sentiment. Although the writing itself holds up well, the novel doesn't have anywhere near the impact that it carried almost 40 years ago. I'd like to think that is because, as a society, we have matured enough to know that many of our opponents are not unthinking, uncaring killing machines. But then I watch Fox News and realize that maybe not.

In a Dry Season, by Peter Robinson

Far away from Fox News, there used to be a village in England named Hobbs End. It was emptied of people and filled with the waters of Thornfield Reservoir. Until one hot summer, during a drought, the water receded revealing the still standing structures and the body of someone who died over fifty years earlier.

A fifty year old case is the perfect assignment for Detective Chief Inspector Banks, toward whom petty Chief Constable Jeremiah Riddle feels a strong antipathy. Offering him the assistance of the local Constable, Anne Cabbot (who also rubs her superiors the wrong way) he sends the Inspector, who is newly separated from his wife, to Harksmere to investigate.

Meanwhile, hearing of the body's discovery on the news, a mystery writer waits for an Inspector to show up on her doorstep. While she waits, she reflects on those long ago days in Hobbs End during World War II, with its shortages, rationing, GIs, Land Girls and dances.

With a charming voice, Robinson seamlessly takes us back and forth between the two eras, and we learn bits and pieces of the past that give us insight into the present day investigating that Banks and Cabbot undertake. This is the tenth novel of the Inspector Bank series and probably my favorite. It illuminates not just today and how we relate to each other, but also who we were then, during WWII. It ties the past and the present firmly together.

Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst

Mission to Paris is a moody, atmospheric look at Paris in 1938, where the Nazis were using the print media to discourage French attempts to prepare for war. In the middle of this comes Frederich Stahl, an American actor born in Austria, to make a movie about the Great War. He is misquoted as speaking about the "futility of war," and is immediately courted by the Nazis.

The Germans have built up a network in Paris whose main function is to keep the French discouraged about going to war. They use half-truths and outright lies that are repeated enough that they become the accepted reality. (Sound familiar?) Although tempted by the Nazis with gorgeous women and high praise, Stahl just wants to finish his movie and go home.

But the Germans persist, knowing that if they can convert him he will be a powrful voice in their chorus. They invite him to Berlin to judge a festival of Austrian films. At that point he seeks help from a diplomat at the American Embassy who encourages him to attend and to become a double agent for the Americans.

But the plot is almost secondary to the flavor of Paris and the character of the protagonist. Frederick Stahl simply wants to do what is morally right in the morally ambiguous world of pre-war Europe.

In Paris, the evenings of September are sometimes warm, excessively gentle, and, in the magic particular to that city, irresistably seductive. The autumn of the year 1938 began in just such weather and on the terraces of the best cafés, in the famous restaurants, at the dinner parties one wished to attend, the conversation was, of necessity, lively and smart: fashion, cinema, love affairs, politics, and, yes, the possibility of war— that too had its moment. Almost anything, really, except money. Or, rather, German money. A curious silence, for hundreds of millions of francs— tens of millions of dollars— had been paid to some of the most distinguished citizens of France since Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933. But maybe not so curious, because those who had taken the money were aware of a certain shadow in these transactions and, in that shadow, the people who require darkness for the kind of work they do.
It was a wonderful story until the ending. It seemed out of pace with the rest of the story and left me feeling that I just didn't care that much what happened to the main characters. It felt like a disconnect.

Overall, the pacing has changed over the years, but also our vision has changed. In Above Suspicion and Assignment in Brittany the Germans were one dimensional. Higgins gave us a little more depth to our vision of Germans, and Robinson fleshed out the Brits so that they too, were more than just the good guys. Alan Furst has given a realism to his characters who are torn between what they want to do and what they should do. That bravery doesn't have as much to do with facing a bullet as it does with facing our fear of the bullet.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon May 06, 2013 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

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