Sunday, November 19, 2017

Spy Caper in Nazi Germany (A Toast to Tomorrow)

     Manning Coles. A Toast to Tomorrow (1941. Republished by Bantam Books 1947) An odd book: an anti-Nazi spy story written early in the war, and reprinted by Bantam books after the war. The story is a fairly convoluted fantasy plot: A severely injured amnesiac British intelligence agent washes up on the Belgian shore in 1918. The docs at the German Naval Hospital patch him up and let him go. He builds a life for himself as a good German, rises to become Chief of Police. Eventually he recovers his memory of himself as Tommy Hambledon, and sets about saving some people from the increasing brutality of the Nazi regime, and finding the murderer of his comrade. He executes justice on the latter just before he and another agent make their way to Switzerland, and presumably from there to England.
     The story is of course preposterous. The tone of the tale is a mix of gung-ho incorruptible spy-hero with touches of irony, wit, and farce. The cover blurb invokes Wodehouse, not inappropriately. It’s a quick read. Its structure reminds me of a movie: an event narrated in some detail, then a jump to the next event. The whole is stitched together to make for a superficially plausible story in which the reader can imagine himself as the dashing hero. The swiftness of the narration (it covers about 20 years) allows one to ignore the holes in the plot.
     I think the whole was concocted much like the patriotic pro-war movies of the early war years, which both the Allies and the Germans produced in great quantity. Both sides portrayed “our boys” as paragons of virtue and noble restraint with an uncompromising sense of justice, and of course the superior brains and skills that guaranteed the defeat of the most wily opponents. An interesting historical artefact. But well written, which probably explains why Bantam chose to reprint it.
     Bantam Books was founded in 1945. The book includes a list of 122 titles, mostly current genre fiction and popular novels (some of which I recognised as movies, not books), with a smattering of classics. The books were cheap, initially 25 cents. Fairly early on, Bantam began to publish original work as well. It became the most prolific publisher of pocket books, most of them genre fiction. (The Wikipedia article is woefully incomplete). This copy is a first Bantam printing of A Toast to Tomorrow, and in pretty good shape, considering that is was printed on wood-fibre pulp. The cover has a crease in the lower right corner; I think there were several readers before me. Any collectors who come across this review may email me. I’ll keep until January next year, then it will go to a used book dealer or yard sale.
     A pretty good read, considering. **½

Friday, November 17, 2017

How Hitler Lost the War

     How Hitler Lost the War (2005) [Producer David Hoffman, writer Robert Denny] The popular myth of WW2 is that England fought heroically against the Nazi hordes until the USA came along and won the war for them. There was also something going in Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union, and in the Pacific between the Americans and the Japanese. But never mind the details, the Allies won the war.    
     In the last 30 years or so, historians have reread the details, many of which were new, and it’s clear that the Allies didn’t so much win the war as that Hitler lost it. Or, to give it a more balanced spin, that Hitler made some fatal mistakes which enabled the Allies to regroup, attack, and win. If he had not made those mistakes, the outcome for the Allies would not have been a simple victory, and could very well have been a defeat.
     This film points to several tactical and strategic errors. For example, Hitler stopped the army from capturing the defeated British and French troops at Dunkirk and sent in the air force to destroy them instead. The RAF turned out to be a much better protector than Hitler expected.
     Another tactical error was to concentrate his eastern forces on Leningrad and the Ukraine instead of on Moscow, as his army chiefs advised. But that was done within the major strategic  error of attacking the Soviet Union.
     In the Ukraine, the German forces were welcomed as liberators, but Hitler’s racist superstitions prevented him from capitalising on this. Instead, he sent in the SS to round up and eliminate undesirable elements. He wanted the Ukraine for lebensraum. So the Ukrainians formed guerilla groups to fight the Germans.
     That last point shows up Hitler’s fundamental mistake. He went to war to gain land, and failed to focus on defeating the enemy. War is always waged for political reasons, but it is a very bad mistake to focus on the political goal instead of the military one, which is to defeat the enemy. First things first: Hitler never really understood that. He also vastly overestimated his knowledge and understanding of politics and war. He had a talent for spotting and exploiting weaknesses and pressure points in his adversaries, but he had no grasp of the larger purposes which drive political and military conflict. In particular, he did not understand that sooner or later the other great powers would decide to stop him. A moderately powerful Germany that one could do business with was acceptable, no matter what the Nazis did insdie the country. A self-aggrandising Germany that threatened the balance of power was not. The film does not make this an explicit point, but it’s the context of its thesis.
     Well done, with interviews with German as well as Allied veterans. A treat for the military history buff, a good general history doc for everyone else. ***

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Daisy Does It Again: A Mourning Wedding

     Carola Dunn. A Mourning Wedding (2004) Daisy, wife of Chief inspector Alec Fletcher, pregnant, arrives at Haverhill, a monstrous Victorian pile inhabited by three generations of Fotheringhams. She will be assisting her friend Lucinda Fotheringham at her wedding to Gerald “Binky” Bincombe. During her first night there, Lucy’s great-aunt Eva dies of strangulation. Alec is of course summoned to take over from the locals. Another murder, Lucy’s wavering about the wedding, assorted family feuding, and an attempt  on Gerald’s life, complicate the story. Lady Eva was in the habit of keeping notes on verified gossip, which widens the field of suspects, and makes for a boatload of red herrings. Daisy supplies the solution that ties up all the loose ends. Lucy decides to marry Gerald after all. The requisite happy ending of a detective story thus being supplied, all ends well.
     This is Dunn’s 13th novel in the Daisy Dalrymple series, and the experience shows. It’s smoothly told, well constructed light fiction. If you like historical romance disguised as crime fiction, you will like this series. I like it well enough to snap up any that I find on the used-book shelves. Above average for the genre. **½

Monday, November 13, 2017

Sunday, November 05, 2017

How to Cut Your Enemy: Musashi's Book of Five Rings.

     Miyamoto Musashi. A Book of Five Rings (1645) Translated by Victor Harris (1974) Harris provides a potted biography of Musashi. Despite Harris’s best efforts to present Musashi as a noble and honourable soul, he comes across as a single-minded thug with a nice talent for ink-painting and calligraphy. The book itself reinforces this impression: Musashi focuses on killing the enemy. His principle is “Do whatever is necessary to kill your foe”. He gives many pieces of advice on how to do this by using the traditional Samurai weapons of long and short sword, plus whatever else may be handy. The advice ranges from the specific (eg, parry his attack by pushing his sword towards his right eye), to the vague, often coupled with the obvious  (eg, All the five books are chiefly concerned with timing. You must train sufficiently to appreciate this) Much of it is little more than labelling or trite observation (From inside fortifications, the gun has no equal among weapons). The most common advice consists of variations on Study this thoroughly.
     Musashi himself admits that in his book the order of things is a bit confused. It is difficult to express it clearly. I think the confusion, the vagueness, the inability to “express it clearly” have made the book seem more profound than it really is. Apart from the practical bits, which I think anyone familiar with martial arts or even school-yard fighting experience will understand, there is little to grasp. It’s like trying to catch the moon's  reflection by grabbing at the water. Trying to understand what’s not there to be understood is a disorienting experience. Couple this with the writer’s reputation for wisdom, and the reader as often as not sees the writer’s lack of sense as his own lack of understanding. Hence Musashi seems wiser than he is.
     The translation doesn’t help. As far as I can tell, it is about as literal as Harris can make it. The result is increased vagueness: “spirit” is used in at least six different senses. “Research”, “study”, and “understand” are sometimes synonyms, and sometimes not. The translation probably makes Musashi seem worse than he is. I don’t know if Harris was unable or unwilling to interpret the Master’s words, but I repeatedly got the feeling that an effort to get past the words to the intended meanings would have made for a better book. So my critique of Musashi may be more fairly aimed at Harris.
     There is certainly good advice in the book, if you are able to winnow the chaff from the grain, and are astute enough to use context to get at the intended meaning. But overall, the book is overrated. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War covers the same ground more clearly and completely. Both writers resemble Machiavelli, in that the only values they admit to their discourse are those appropriate to achieving the goals. This makes all three writers appear to lack conscience, but as Arthur Harris said when asked about the morality of carpet bombing, Tell me of one operation of war, just one, which is moral. (In War, by Gwynne Dyer).
     An interesting read, but a frustrating one. One could use it as a reminder that great skill in an art is not enough to make one a great teacher of it. **

Friday, November 03, 2017

Final Account: Banks and the Dead Accountant

     Peter Robinson. Final Account (Dry Bones That Dream) (1994) The brutal murder of a mild-mannered accountant leads Banks through family dysfunction, money laundering, tax evasion, adultery, class conflicts, alternative identities, and Caribbean politics to a solution that doesn’t quite satisfy, even though the major perps have been eradicated extra-judicially. The final chapter ties up the loose ends and resolves the ambiguities, quite fairly, but still, I felt it was a bit too pat. Double patties, so to speak. I prefer single patty hamburgers.
     But the narration of the slow, plodding, inch-by-inch movement from questions to answers made for an entertaining read. For once, we get a believable illusion of the slow pace of police work. Robinson’s skill at evoking ambience and character helped, too. **½

Monday, October 30, 2017

Banks Flies to Toronto: The Hanging Valley

     Peter Robinson. The Hanging Valley (1989) The title refers to a geological entity: a valley carved into a valley side  at roughly right angles  to the main valley, ending high above it, usually with a waterfall. There's one above Swainshead.  What was once a hanging crime is done there: murder. The victim’s face has been hacked to prevent identification, but Banks has a lucky break: the man’s dentures have a serial number. Knowing his identity doesn’t help much. It takes patient assembly of small clues, and a visit to Toronto to unravel the knot. Robinson uses the latter to indulge in a bit of a rant about the anti-intellectual attitudes of Canadian community college students.
     Below average for the series, with work-manlike narrative, and an attempt at Rendellesque psychic pathology. Still, better than most crime stories. ***