Summer Reading Into Fall: Spies, Supermen, Sleuths and Spirits
From Daniel Silva’s latest Gabriel Allon thriller to a V.I. Warshowski mystery by Sara Paretsky, there is plenty of good fiction to engage you. Satisfyingly, there are follow-up novels by Paul Grossman, Rebecca Cantrell and Michele Lang—all are Nazi-era fiction, but Lang’s is of the supernatural genre—plus a historical debut novel by Vilmos Kondor. Also welcome is a tragicomedy by Jesse Kellerman, a new (if ancient) voice in Barry Fantoni’s Jewish sleuth and Barbara Taylor Bradford’s surprising mystery. All these plus the latest in the Renaissance-era excitement generated by Sara Poole and contemporary stories by writers Stephen J. Gordon, Harri Nykanen and Ben Coes.
The Fallen Angel: A Novel by Daniel Silva. (Harper, 416 pp. $27.99)
Gabriel Allon is back—with a vengeance. The art restorer is working in the Vatican restoring a priceless Caravaggio when an employee is found dead. Though it looks like a suicide, Allon is recruited to find her killer. It takes him on a trail that reveals that antiquities are stolen to fund the terror network, Hezbollah. His investigation reunites the one-time spy with his Mossad “family.” At the same time, Allon accompanies Pope Paul VII as part of his security detail on a historic reconciliation pilgrimage to Israel. While the pontiff’s hand is outstretched in friendship to both Jews and Muslims, a time bomb is literally ticking below the Temple Mount that will cause untold destruction to the state and its people unless it can be prevented quickly. Can the catastrophe, put in place by the fanatical waqf, religious Muslim supervisor of the holy places, be prevented?
In the Name of God: A Gidon Aronson Thriller by Stephen J. Gordon. (Apprentice House, 398 pp. $32.95)
There are many sides to Gidon Aronson—not all apparent or even agreeable. The Baltimore native is an instructor of martial arts and substitute history teacher at the local Jewish day school. He has also been a Special Forces operative for the Israel Defense Forces, giving him the skills that helped him thwart the attempted assassination of a visiting Israeli politician at a local dinner. The would-be assassin, a student, belongs to a group known as Guardians of Heaven.
Members of the Guardians, it turns out, live at a boarding school for troubled, at-risk kids run by Aaron and Hannah Cole. After one student, Pavel, is killed, apprehending those who committed the violence becomes personal to Gidon.
Working with Shin Bet and local police, Gidon reluctantly follows the Coles to Israel, intent on exposing the mob of conspirators, reveal their intentions and see that justice is done. Add a dose of romance and, eventually, answers to more than the continent-spanning plot are satisfactorily revealed.
The Last Refuge: A Dewey Andreas Novel by Ben Coes. (St. Martin’s Press, 407 pp. $25.99)
Ben Coes’s muscular action novel brings Israel to the brink of nuclear destruction. In this up-to-the-minute story, the enemy is Iran, and they have built their first nuclear bomb and are preparing to use it against Israel. (At the same time, they are deceptively proposing new peace initiatives in talks with a naive United States president.)
Meanwhile, Iranians have also kidnapped an Israeli operative, Kohl Meir (a grandson of Golda), in Brooklyn, and are holding him in a high security prison until they execute him.
Enter Dewey Andreas, a former SEAL, who owes his life to Meir, who saved him in Pakistan. The two were supposed to meet in New York where Meir was paying a condolence call on the parents of an Israeli soldier when he was grabbed. A photo from Meir, however, showing a nuclear bomb with the words “Goodbye Tel Aviv” in Farsi, tells Andreas all he needs to know to undertake a two-pronged high-risk plan: He will save Meir and divert the nuclear device. The two military men—Israeli and American—are portrayed as aggressive and fearless superheroes, perhaps to relieve the existential fears we face against real enemies.
Breakdown: A V.I. Warshawski Novel by Sara Paretsky. (Putnam Adult, 448 pp. $26.95)
Chicago private investigator V.I. Warshawski responds to an old friend’s call for help, only to find that she was pushed off a balcony in a college chapel. V.I. is left to puzzle out the cause of death and reason for her call.
Meanwhile, the body of another P.I. is found stabbed through the heart in a cemetery where a group of girls are holding an initiation ritual to gain supernatural power like their popular fictional hero, Carmilla. The girls are part of a chain of book clubs. V.I. gets a call from her cousin Petra, who leads one of the book clubs, to find the girls. On arrival at the cemetery, however, she finds not just the girls but the P.I.’s dead body.
The plot thickens when one of the girls is identified as the granddaughter of Chaim Salanter, a wealthy businessman and Holocaust survivor who lived as a child in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. He wants to keep his granddaughter’s identity out of the news. He is the wealthy benefactor of the book clubs as well as the target of malicious charges by a radio host, who accuses him of becoming successful through acts of betrayal and theft. Another girl is the daughter of a candidate for United States Senate.
Questions multiply faster than answers. Is it coincidence that a corpse is found near this group of girls? Is it linked to the campaign to destroy Chaim Salanter’s reputation? As V.I. struggles for answers, she finds herself fighting enemies who are no less terrifying for being all too human. This book keeps you reading down to the wire.
Nights of Awe by Harri Nykanen. Translated by Kristian Landon. (Bitter Lemon Press, 252 pp. $14.95 paper)
I’m not sure lovers of Israel will love this new Jewish detective series created by Finnish Jewish writer Harri Nykanen. In this first of his Inspector Ariel Kafka series, Kafka is an inspector in the Violent Crime Unit of the Helsinki police, one of only two Jewish policemen in Finland. It is during the Days of Awe leading up to Yom Kippur when two Arabs are found murdered near a bridge; a third man is seen running away. Then two more bodies are discovered at an Iraqi-owned garage. Is this gang warfare or international terrorism?
Adding to the anxiety provoked by these violent crimes, the Jewish community is expecting the Israeli foreign minister on an unofficial visit. This makes members of the Jewish community—including Kafka’s rich brother, Eli, and the humorless, “hook-nosed” and “bossy” president of the synagogue, Silberstein—worried about the visiting Israeli’s safety. Nykanen makes fun of these rich machers, who feel entitled to special (privileged) information from the police (“We come to you as Jews who want to protect our long-suffering people”).
As conspiracy theories—and more dead bodies—pile up, the blame is being cast on Muslim terrorism and drug trafficking and the Finish Security Police and Mossad get involved.
The crime yarn is full, maybe overfull, of twists and turns—and opens the unthinkable possibility that there is an unheroic ex-Mossadnik perpetrator behind the bloodshed. Whether or not you are uncomfortable with the idea of Jews as evildoers, you will be uncomfortable with the piled-on Jewish stereotypes (does being a Jewish writer make this O.K.?). Nykann also caricatures Jewish women; patronizing, guilt-inducing rabbis; and Jewish stinginess. If Nykanen wants to draw a Jewish readership to his series, he had better do some serious investigation into his offensive attitude.
Potboiler by Jesse Kellerman. (Putman, 336 pp $25.95)
Jesse Kellerman, the talented scion of the mystery-writing Kellerman family (Jonathan and Faye are his parents) has just published his fifth book. His Jewish protagonist—Arthur S. Pfefferkorn (originally Kowalczyk)—teaches creative writing at a small college on the Eastern seaboard. He is a frustrated novelist—he has published only one, years ago. In contrast, his best friend, Bill de Valee, was a major success, churning out popular, best-selling cliché-ridden thrillers. He was working on his 33rd installment when he disappeared and is presumed dead.
Arthur was not only jealous of Bill’s commercial success but of his marriage to Carlotta, the woman he loved. After Bill’s disappearance, Arthur goes to Los Angeles to visit Carlotta, and while there discovers an unfinished manuscript of Bill’s—which he swipes and decides to publish as his own. Soon his life is turned upside down: He learns that Bill’s novels are written by the United States spy agency and he is recruited to step into Bill’s spy shoes. It seems that Bill’s novels include messages and directives to action that cause havoc around the world.
When Carlotta is kidnapped by the West Zlabian Counter Counter revolutionaries, Arthur undertakes the dangerous mission to rescue her (in hilarious disguise) after intensive spy training. On his surreal trip to East and West Zlabia, the over-the-top hilarity accelerates. This section of the story has elements of heroic klutziness and mangled language found in the films Pink Panther and Borat. Language is perverted and misperceived: East is West; left is right. It is impossible to know what is true and what is false.
Letter from a Stranger by Barbara Taylor Bradford. (St. Martins Press, 448 pp. $27.99)
If you are a fan of Barbara Taylor Bradford, here is one with a “Jewish” twist. Thirty-something twins Justine and Richard Nolan have had their share of life’s ups and downs—a neglectful, self-centered mother, a dear father who died too soon and a loving grandmother whose loss they have mourned for 10 years.
Then a letter arrives from Istanbul—with no return address—bidding them to contact their grandmother before it is too late. So begins a journey that leaves behind the hills of Connecticut where they live to discover the identity of the letter writer in Turkey—and the mystery behind their grandmother’s disappearance. This and much more is part of the trail to retrieve history and heritage and finding true love.
Harry Lipkin, Private Eye: A Novel by Barry Fantoni. (Doubleday, 208 pp. $24)
If you decide to schlep around with Harry Lipkin—the slow-moving, 87-year-old P.I. living in Warmheart, Florida—you will gain insight into his unique detecting skills when he agrees to find out who has been stealing jewelry and other items from Mrs. Norma Weinberger, an elderly widow. He interviews her chauffeur (who boxes on the side); the maid (who sends money home to Bolivia); the butler (who likes to bet on horses); the chef, an Ethiopian Jew who is raising money to help his people; and the gardener (who spouts “phony Zen”). What they have in common is the need for money.
The ending may be surprisingly unsurprising, but it is the journey that makes this book pleasurable.
Children of Wrath by Paul Grossman. (St. Martin’s, 336 pp. $25.99)
It is 1929, and despite Berlin’s long cultural lineage and recent enactment of laws of equality for all, the tide of decency is turning is being pulled away as Hitler, Goebbels, the Brownshirts, Nazis and Communists all battle for power. The city’s depravity is, literally, propelled out of the city’s sewer system in the form of a burlap sack, in which is found evidence of unspeakable experiments against young children.
A decorated combat veteran and skilled policeman, 34-year-old Jewish Sergeant-Detektiv Willi Kraus of the Berlin Kriminal Polizei is called to investigate—then, for a time, taken off the case because of anti-Semitism—before he makes unsavory discoveries of atrocities that prefigure the horrors of the Holocaust.
Children of Wrath is a prequel, and those who have read Grossman’s first book, The Sleepwalkers, know that, against all odds, he will be making his reputation by cracking the mystery of the kinderfressers. The compelling writing and sympathetic sleuth make readers want to finish the book in one sitting. Happily, Grossman, who teaches writing and literature at the City University of New York, is at work on his third Willi Kraus novel.
Budapest Noir: A Novel by Vilmos Kondor. (Harper Perennial, 291 pp. $14.99)
This debut historical novel by Hungarian math and physics teacher Vilmos Kondor brings us into a 1936 Budapest that is getting cozy with Germany; the main circle has been renamed Hitler Square. Zsigmond Gordon, a crime reporter who is Jewish, covers the homicide beat. On a tip, he goes to a seedy neighborhood where a Jewish girl has been violently murdered, a Jewish prayer book in her purse. It is the same girl whose naked photos he saw in the desk drawer of Vladimir Gellert, detective, chief inspector and section head. Gordon starts tracing the unknown girl’s identity—trying to puzzle out why her case is being ignored by the police, how she ended up a prostitute and, eventually, why her family is disowning her.
The justice-seeking Gordon maneuvers his way through political intrigue, class differences, stark contrasts of poverty and great wealth, beauty and ugliness. There are secrets, blackmail, murder—even the death of a prime minister. His conclusion is a triumph of a sort, as loss of life is measured against loss of reputation and livelihood.
A City of Broken Glass by Rebecca Cantrell. (Tor/Forge, 336 pp, $25.99)
From its opening pages, the action in Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel thriller series never slows down. It is 1938 and Hannah, a German non-Jew, is completely sympathetic to the increasingly dire Jewish situation in 1938. Currently she lives in Switzerland—she is wanted by the Gestapo and being in Germany is dangerous for her. But her job as a reporter has brought her and her 13-year-old son, Anton, to Poland to cover a festival. Still, she cannot resist the distraction—or attraction—of a hard news story that she hopes will help the world learn the truth about the violence being perpetrated against the Jews. She has heard that 12,000 Polish Jews were deported from Germany and are being held in stables and a mill. When she finagles herself into a stable, she finds Miriam, the wife of her old beau, Paul; she tries to get the pregnant Miriam medical help but by the time she returns both Miriam and the baby she is delivering are dead.
The strong-willed Hannah is now determined to find and rescue Miriam’s 2-year-old daughter, Ruth, who was left behind in Berlin hidden in a cabinet at home (shades of Sarah’s Key!). Before she can determine her plan of action, Hannah is kidnapped by the SS, driven into Germany and must herself be rescued. Her former, long-missing boyfriend, Lars Lang, shows up with Anton and together they endure several harrowing scenarios—turning for help to Jewish friends, doctors and forgers in the embattled Jewish Quarter—to find Ruth and to get out of Germany. Some of the action coincides with the infamous Night of Broken Glass, hence the book’s title.
Dark Victory by Michele Lang. (Tor Books, 320 pp. $25.99)
Dark Victory, second in a trilogy about the Lazarus Sisters (Lady Lazarus) also takes place before World War II. Magda is a beautiful, down-to-earth Jewish witch, forced into the family business because of the advent of the Nazis. She is ready to use her powers to prevent world catastrophe and save her people. First, however, she must rescue her employer, the vampire Bathory, who is being tried by the Berlin Vampirat. After that, she must prevent the demon Ashmodel from taking control of Hitler and using him for his own, devastating ends. Finally, she must also rescue her sister, Gisela, who has gone from their home in Budapest to Poland, which is under attack by the Germans.
Although he is no longer as powerful as when he was a heavenly figure, Raziel—Magda’s love and fallen angel—travels with her as she tries to recover the powerful, lost Book of Raziel, her stolen family inheritance. In all her quests, Magda faces evil enemies—and while she does not win all her battles, she is strengthened by allies including her mother, who throws off her anti-magic stance to descend to earth to help her daughter fight against the demons (and werewolves) that embody the Nazis and to safely spirit Jewish children out of the country.
The Borgia Mistress: A Novel by Sara Poole. (St. Martin’s Griffin, 416 pp. $14.99)
Once more, Francesca Giordano, the pope’s poisoner, must insert herself into the maelstrom of nonstop Vatican intrigue. She is carrying on her father’s vocation to protect Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, now Pope Alexander VI, from his ever-growing legion of enemies at a time of changing allegiances: Borgia is now allied with Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, though he does not share their fanatical beliefs that will endanger the Jews in their country. On the contrary, Borgia and Rome’s Jews have an unspoken pact: They support him with treasure and he protects them.
But a new danger lurks: An assassin, yet to be identified, stalks the pope. The scary and surprising cast of characters includes a temperamental Spaniard, a nephew of their royal highnesses, who is hanging out with Cesare Borgia, the pope’s younger son (and Francesca’s lover). And a nun appears who says she knew Francesca’s mother and how she died (she was killed by her own brothers because she married a Jew). Intriguingly, the Cathars—a group of believers who ascribe evil to the earthly world, are unyielding enemies of the church and were thought to have all sacrificed their lives in 1244 France—suddenly reappear. Why?
As in the previous books in this series, Francesca finds comfort and assistance from her friendships with Jews who, despite their precarious position as outsiders, share her belief in making this world a better place, even when it means putting one’s life on the line—as she does.