The Royalist, by S.J. Deas
Headline, (2015), Paperback, 336 pages
I have read quite a few murder mysteries set during the Restoration, and I know of some set during the Commonwealth, but I believe this is the first I have encountered set during the Civil War itself (or as it now known due to political correctness, the War of Three Kingdoms). It an unremittingly grim tale, set during the bitter winter of 1645, and the book ‘s tone perfectly matches the bleakness of the weather and England’s shattered society. The story revolves around William Falkland, a war-weary Royalist awaiting execution in a Parliamentary prison. At the last moment he is plucked from his dismal surroundings by Oliver Cromwell himself, who requires someone to get to the bottom of a spate of unexplained suicides bedeviling his prized New Model Army. Sent with a surly companion, Warbeck, to watch over him, Falkland arrives in the army’s winter camp to find nothing is as is it seems. Assisted by a young local woman, he eventually gets to the bottom of the mystery, after coming close to death on more than one occasion, but questions whether he has actually solved anything at all. While the plot is nothing to write home about, the book’s atmosphere and a society riven by hatred, suspicion and fear is well-handled. Falkland is an agreeable enough, if somewhat cliched, protagonist. His tentative blossoming of feeling for Kate Cain remains frustratingly unfulfilled, and it is hoped they are reunited in subsequent books. The other characters are suitably sinister, or downright twisted, and all have secrets to hide. It’s not quite what I would call an enjoyable read, but as a slice of England’s darker history rendered into passable fiction, it’s a worthwhile expense of your time.
KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, by Nikolaus Wachsmann
Little, Brown (2015), Paperback, 896 pages
A previous book I read on this topic was entitled “The Theory and Practice of Hell”, and I can think of no better way to describe Wachsmann’s amazing scholarly, yet emotional work. It is very rare to find a serious scholarly work, dauntingly massive, that manages to also capture and convey the horror of its subject matter. This is a book that simultaneously educates with fascination about every facet of the organisation of the Nazi concentration camp system, while at the same putting the reader through the emotional wringer. I can only say, as you read this book, you will learn, you will be enthralled, you will also quite possibly cry and quiver with rage. The book encompasses the full horror of this most grotesque crime from its ramshackle beginnings in 1933, through its development into a meticulously organised and supervised exercise in stripping people of all dignity and humanity, making them suffer the most intense agony and humiliating painful death, through to its catastrophic climax in the last days of the war, when even with all hope of victory gone and nemesis bearing down on them the heavily-indoctrinated SS killers could not stop themselves murdering hundreds of thousands. Wachsmann meticulously covers not only the outright horror at the coalface of the camp system, but also the bureaucracy in the background that kept it ticking over up until the end. Some of the worst war criminals never actually laid a hand on a prisoner, but contributed to the murder of millions through paperwork, organisation and resource management. The culmination of the story records that many of these criminals escaped justice, or received light sentences, although there is some satisfaction at reading of the executions of some of the worst offenders. But many who should have joined them, were able to spend the rest of their lives comfortable and safe, usually expressing no remorse whatsoever for their crimes. This is a brilliant book, but by no means an easy read. There is a substantial emotional price to be extracted by reading it, but it is certainly worth it.
Last days of the Incas, by Kim MacQuarrie
Piatkus (2012), Paperback, 522 pages
A popular topic of discussion in European intellectual circles over the last couple of centuries has been the so-called Black Legend. Largely formulated in northern Protestant Europe, the Black Legend holds the the golden age of the Spanish Empire was a nightmare of brutality, repression, fanaticism and exploitation, and that the Spanish, both in Europe and in their American colonies, gloried in unspeakable acts in the name of God and the Spanish king. Not surprisingly, this belief was particularly strong in Britain and the Netherlands, two countries who had plenty of history with the Spanish. Equally unsurprisingly, the Spanish strongly reject the Black Legend, to the extent that some scholars now refer to a White Legend, a Spanish-sponsored revisionism which goes to the other extreme and portrays the Spanish as, if not exactly enlightened colonizers, as certainly much more humane than they have been portrayed. I’m not versed enough in Spanish colonial history to offer an educated opinion one way or another on the validity or otherwise of the Black Legend, however, after reading this book, I am quite comfortable saying that on the basis of Spanish activities in Peru, the Black Legend seems much more likely than the White. You will seldom find a more horrifying account of greed, brutality, venality and treachery than the history of Francisco Pizzaro’s conquest of the Inca Empire. There is really no saving grace for Spain here. In the space of four decades, a few thousand Spaniards wiped out a great and cultured civilization, murdered uncountable numbers of its inhabitants and subjected the rest to slavery, all in the name of God, Gold and Glory. The noble side of the story is the heroic resistance the Inca, using spears and swords against horses, muskets, armour and cannon, put up for those forty years. This is an extremely well-written account of horrors beyond imagining, an ugly and brutal story that is nonetheless enthralling. It is topped and tailed by an exciting account of the discovery of the lost Inca cities of Macchu Picchu and Vilcabamba and the eccentric characters who believed enough in the legends to go out and find them. I guess we wait now for Spanish revisionism of this story. I can’t see how it can be done, but it will be some job of restoration if it is achieved.