About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Alan Furst’s Quiet Heroes

Photo by Shonna Valeska for NPR
Alan Furst is a master of quiet tension. Not for him the rushing climax bound to end in a blaze of guns. His books set before and during World War II have the feel of reality. Few people are Hollywood heroes.

Kingdom of Shadows has Nicholas Morath, an upper class Hungarian living and working as a businessman in Paris, undertaking missions in 1938 and 1939 to try to avert the looming war.

Constantine “Costa” Zannis, a Greek police officer in Spies in the Balkans, helps Jews escape from Germany. I said in review:

He is simply a good man doing his best to help the persecuted in a cruel world ….. At the same time he is a brave man willing to take real risks. As a Greek whose family and friends fought for independence from Turkey but a generation earlier I believe he identifies with the plight of the Jews.

Dark Voyage involves a tramp steamer on missions for British intelligence. In my review I concluded:

[Dutch Captain Eric] DeHaan and the crew are the ordinary people of war. Once again I felt as if I was reading one of John Le Carre’s spy novels. There is no glitz or glamour.

In The Polish Officer Captain Alexander de Milja, a Polish army cartographer, takes Polish government gold out of Warsaw as Poland is conquered. He subsequently spends time in Paris and London. He sums up why France did not have resistance movements to equal Eastern Europe:

Because he’d learned a terrible truth about the Germans: unless you were a Jew they wouldn’t bother you if you didn’t bother them.

Last year I read and reviewed Hitler’s Empire – How the Nazis Ruled Europe by Mark Mazower in which the author set out how there was limited resistance in Western Europe. In my review I said:

Opposition to the Germans was muted except in the East where Nazi oppression left the Poles and Russians with little to lose by armed resistance. In Western Europe it took the brutal drives for workers being sent to the Reich to provoke real resistance. Even then attacks were limited.

My last post was a review of Red Gold in which former film producer Jean Casson gradually becomes part of the French Resistance as he acts as a liaison between French Intelligence officials and the French Communist Party.

Furst is a master at creating such men as Morath, Zannis, deHaan, Milja and Casson. They will never lead their nation in politics or war or business. They will do their best for their country despite the danger. They know neither fame nor reward await them. They do not seek glory.
I have met men and women who resisted tyranny. I wrote a post about real life families in the Netherlands and Denmark who acted against the Nazis occupying their nations. A Dutch teenage girl altered identity cards to change the age of young men to prevent deportation. A Danish family hid a Jewish girl from Germany. None set out to be resisters. Yet when they were called upon they took up the challenge.

Those Danish and Dutch people are heroes like Furst’s heroes. Morath, Zannis, deHaan, Milja and Casson could be us. We can identify with them hoping we would have had the courage to resist. Furst convinces us not all ordinary people were part of the silent majority described by Mazower.

Furst’s characters, as with my real life examples, do not always resist by wielding weapons. A frequent theme sees them helping other people, especially Jews, facing Nazi persecution.

I find Furst’s characters intriguing and inspiring for, despite facing daunting odds, they have not drifted into apathy.

While I admire John Le Carre’s books his bleak endings are hard to read. I appreciate that Furst, while not predictable, does not always write a dark finish to his books.

Furst’s books encourage us not to give up hope in our fellow men and women.


  1. Bill - I'm glad you've profiled Furst's novels. Sometimes it's those quiet heroes and understated plots and stores that are the most compelling. You've reminded me too that I really ought to spotlight one of his novels. Thanks

  2. Margot: Thanks for the comment. Furst is an excellent writer and I look forward to one of his books under your spotlight.

  3. So glad to read this review about Alan Furst's books and characters. If I read this genre, and could bear to read about WWII, I would read his series first.

    I have given Spies of the Balkans to a friend as a holiday gift, hoping he'd like it. I think I'll give him another book by Furst this holiday.

    On resistance in Europe, the more one reads blogs, books and talks to people about the subject, the more one learns about this. The NY Times ran a piece a few years ago about Germans hiding a Jewish musician during the war.

    Irene Sandler, with help from others, smuggled 2500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, to farm families in rural areas. She was arrested, tortured and then released from prison. She won a Nobel Prize for this.

    Then there's a book out about a couple, which saved 300 people in the Warsaw Zoo and in their homes. A blogger wrote of an elderly woman living on a French farm who hid three Jewish men in her cellar, wrapping her groceries in newspaper every day so she could bring home the war news to them.

    There were many resistance fighters. After I saw the film Defiance about the Bielski brothers who saved 1200 Jews in the forests of Belarus,, I looked up more about partisans and Resistance fighters, found more in Belarus, some in Poland (a tough place), and, of course, in Italy. Read The Collini Case for a legal mystery about that.

    Greece had a strong partisan movement, as did Yugoslavia. Even Malta; I read about a teenage girl who was shooting a machine gun at the Nazis; unfortunately, she was caught.

    And then within Germany itself, reportedly 800,000 political prisoners under Nazis, including students Sophie Stoll and her friends.

    Margaretta von Trotta's film Rosenstrasse tells of non-Jewish German women who demonstrated every day in front of the deportation center where their Jewish husbands were held. They stood up to Nazis with machine guns. They won their husbands' release.

    And then the famous Warsaw Ghetto uprising happened in 1943; the Resisters had nothing to lose. My grandmother, a Russian/Polish/Jewish immigrant had a friend who wrote a book about other resisters in other Jewish ghettoes.

    And then in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, resistance, too. This post reminds me that I know a man who never knew his Dutch uncle. He died at the hands of the Naziss while in the Dutch Resistance movement. And there's the famous burning down of the population records building in Amsterdam. Although most involved were caught and paid the ultimate price, thousands of Jews were saved.

    So, if one keeps reading, one finds out a lot more about European resisters.

    1. Kathy D.: Thank you for a thoughtful and insightful comment.

      As I read your comment I think Mazower was too narrow in his conclusions about lack of resistance in Western Europe. He took resistance to require armed action against the nations. I think your examples, as with my examples, show resistance took many forms.

      When I was in the Lofoten islands north of the Arctic Circle in Norway last year I met people who told me the Nazis had required them to help build fortifications against a potential Allied seaborne assault. Required to carry stones for the project they would stumble when they could so the stones would roll down hills and they would have to go get a new stone to carry.

  4. Good you added that.

    Another point, which is quite astounding is that women who were rounded up in France in a 240 or so in a women's convoy were at a camp. Even though they were of different religions and political ideology, they all jointly sabotaged the labor in the Germans' work camps. They deliverately sabotaged the machinery, did slowdowns of work and protected the more fragile women who couldn't do hard physical work. This is from my reading of marks by a leading French resister who was imprisoned in a camp. After she got out, she testified at the Nuremberg trials, then told of the women's resistance inside a camp.

    I think if more people had weapons in Europe and military training, many more would have fought back physically. When people have no weapons or training and are taken by surprise by the German military with a lot of force and weaponry, what do they do? And what do villages do without guns, ammunition, military training?

    In the movie "Defiance," the Bielski brothers and people in their encampment did fight back with whatever weapons they could buy or get via bartering or just finding and seizing.

    I left out but should have included the massive resistance in Spain to Franco and fascism; so many sacrificed and died then.

    Cara Black who writes the Aimee Ledoc series set in Paris, has written of commemorations to deceased and still living French Resistance fighters, who are highly honored still. And in
    Greece, I believe the Italian government gave that government two hours to either capitulate or not at the start of the war. The Greek people said NO and valiantly fought back, including Jewish people. Just read at Murder Is Everywhere about the last living Jewish Resistance fighter in Greece, a retired dentist. And so on.

    All over the world, people have fought for independence and freedom throughout the centuries. I don't think Jewish people or Polish people or Italians or any other people were more passive than others.

  5. Kathy D.: Thanks for the further comment.

    I think the word "resistance" was an appropriate word to describe the response in conquered nations. "Resistance" is not confined to arms. It takes all the forms described by you in your comments.

    The peoples of Nazi occupied nations could not have expected as brutal and systemic scheme of murder as carried out by the Nazis. Certainly there have been atrocities and killings by previous occupying powers but they could not have expected the scale of Nazi brutality. Had they realized sooner what was going to happen "resistance" would have been far more over.

  6. Agree. If people had known -- and had access to weapons and were trained in how to resist, more resistance would have happened.

    And as a further bit of information, as I was reading Rachel Donadio's piece about traveling to Naples in the New York Times Sunday Travel section, I came to this section, which is new to me:

    In 1943, when the Nazis began rounding up Neopolitan men, the furious women of Naples fought back, successfully driving the Nazis out of town, albeit on a killing spree, in a rare mass citizens' revolt against the German occupation!

    So glad to see this group resistance by women. I do know that women were part of the Resistance Movement in occupied countries and carried out many tasks. In addition to other tasks, women were also often couriers of messages for Resistance forces.

  7. Kathy D.: I was not aware of the battle in Naples.

    It is ironic that Allied governments were far more willing to use women in clandestine operations than they were to allow them in regular military forces.

  8. That's interesting; it's true.

    But women were in the Resistance movements all over Europe. I've read amazing stories of courage and determination, of great risk-taking. Women were part of the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance, and were among French resisters, too.

    Although I just can't bring myself to read it, there is a book about the convoy of women rounded up in France and taken to a camp. It was about 240 women. Their stories are told in this book. I think about 49 survived. A friend got the book, but became too sad and also upset at their suffering, so she stopped reading it.

    But some wonderful heroes are mentioned, leaders, organizers even within the camp.

    There is also the choir at Terezin camp. These Jewish prisoners sang to resist, and they kept on singing even while their numbers were dwindling around them.

    There is a terrific documentary about them. Survivors speak of how even if the German soldiers had burst in and threatened their lives, they would have stayed in their places and kept on singing. It's quite a story.

  9. Kathy D.: Have you read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl in wich the author, a pyschologist from Vienna, discusses life in concentration camps and what he learned from the experience. I posted a review on January 18, 2011. The book has influenced me since I was taught about it in 2nd year university 42 years ago. His observation that those inmates who lost “faith in the future – his future – was doomed” is a powerful statement on the importance of hope.

  10. I have not read Frankl's book, but I have read all about it many times. I have gleaned from what I read that one important aspect of survival was the interaction and humanity among the prisoners.

    From one anecdote, I learned that on Frankl's birthday, a fellow inmate had given him a pencil stub and matchbook so he could write. What an incredible kindness amidst that horror.

    1. Kathy D.: I hope you get a chance to read the book. It can change the way you think about life.

  11. I have read a great deal about Frankl's book. I may or may not read it. I try to steer clear of reading about the horrors of WWII, which is why I don't read novels set during the war. I know enough. As a 5-year-old living in New York, my friend's lovely parents had numbers on their arms.
    Her mother looked so sad and gaunt. Her eyes looked haunted. I noticed this at that age, and also knew that she was a kind person to her child and her friends.
    I asked my parents about the numbers on the adults' arms, and I was told by my Jewish mother enough that I could grasp at that age. By 9, I knew about the Holocaust enough to talk about it.

    Sara Paretsky's latest excellent book, "Critical Mass," harks back to 1938-1942 Vienna in the Jewish ghetto, and mentions the deportation of the characters, except the grandchildren who were able to go to London. The adults could not get visas, and we know what happened then.
    The book does describe a few horrors, enough for me. What sane people who care about humanity cannot in their wildest dreams think of, the Nazis did.

    So, it's not distraction for me or entertainment, what I expect of crime fiction.

    1. Kathy D.: I would not be afraid to read Frankl's book. What happened in the camps was awful. Frankl takes us into the minds of those who were there and challenges us on how to live our current lives and deal with bad times.

      I am angry each time I read how the Nazis were so brutal and caused so much suffering and loss. At the same time I admired how Frankl developed a philosophy of life out of those terrible circumstances.

      Frankl was in Vienna during the years of 1938 - 1942. The book delves into why he stayed.