People have been writing fiction about the Second World War for seventy years. There were novels written during the war, in its immediate aftermath, in the fifties, sixties, seventies and so on. They’re still being published today. Many of them are very good and others not so. They cover a variety of genres from action stories set on the front line, espionage tales, romantic fiction and political thrillers. Most take place during the war itself but some cover the period leading up to the war, explaining why it happened for example, and others the period after the war had ended. In this latter category, I’d place Holocaust novels, of which there are plenty, where the leading characters tell of their personal experiences in the death camps. Or indeed, such fiction may be about the hunt, many years after the war’s end, for Nazi war criminals. Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File springs to mind.
I’ve been reading war fiction for decades and, until recent years, these have come from well-known authors. Recently, however, with the advent of the E reader, many previously unknown books, space for which can’t be found on the shelves of the ever dwindling number of bookshops, have become easily accessible and relatively cheap. So, instead of cramming paper books in the small space of my flat, I can store several hundred on my Kindle. There are so many books available these days it’s quite easy to miss something worth reading. Reviews in newspapers tend to focus on established authors and ignore popular fiction. So how do you find out about these hidden gems? The answer is with difficulty which is why I’m writing this post in the hope that somebody will read it. Hopefully, my four and a half thousand Twitter followers will pass the word around.
I’ve chosen a single book by each of ten different authors. Some are part of a series and I’ve said so in the section about that particular book. I’ve excluded novels by Philip Kerr, Alan Furst and David Downing because they are amongst the very best in the genre and, if you haven’t heard of them, you should have. I’m going to blog about these three sometime in the future. I’ve included two by established authors; John Lawton and Allan Massie, because their work is not as well-known as it should be. I make no apologies for including my own novel, The Blue Pencil. This is a thriller that tries to say something about how the European War came about and how it might have been avoided. The books highlighted are in alphabetical order by title. They’re all worth reading and reviewing on platforms like Goodreads and Amazon.
Maureen Lee is a prolific writer of romantic fiction. Until I read Au Revoir Liverpool I have to confess I’d never heard of her. However, after reading this novel, I found out that she is a very successful writer in this genre and most of her novels are set on Merseyside.
Au Revoir Liverpool has all the classic ingredients of a good piece of romantic fiction. It is exceptionally well written, the characters are well drawn, varied and interesting, the plot is credible and there a good people and not so good people. It also has sweep, an almost epic tale spread over several years which starts in Liverpool, moves to German occupied Paris and ends back home in Liverpool. I enjoyed every minute of it.
This is Alex Gerlis’ first novel I believe and it’s an absolute humdinger. The Best of Our Spies is a novel about disinformation and fans of Ben McIntyre’s non-fiction Second World books will find Gerlis’ totally credible. Apart from being a thrilling espionage thriller, The Best of Our Spies is also a very moving love story. Terrific
It might seem a bit strange to suggest that John Lawton is an “unknown” author because he certainly is not. However, I wonder how many people have heard of Blackout, the first, and in my opinion the best of the Troy thrillers. I read Blackout almost fifteen years ago and the memory of it remains with me to this day. I’ve read all of the subsequent Troy stories, and enjoyed them, but this one stands out as a tale of twists and turns, surprises, very well-drawn characters and an evocotive sense of time and location. The setting is London in 1944 during the final stages of the blitz. Brilliantly researched, it’s definitely a must-read for all fans of historical crime fiction.
The Blue Pencil is an anti-appeasement thriller. Neville Chamberlain’s government went to any lengths to ensure that their policies of not opposing Hitler and Mussolini received favourable coverage in the media. The hero, a young journalist, risks life and limb to tell his readers just how bad things are in Nazi Germany and becomes a vehement opponent of the government. His stance attracts the attention of the shadowy figures behind Chamberlain and his appeasers. Read it to fully understand the devastating consequences of appeasement.
Code Name Verity is a tale of courage, love and deception set in occupied France. The central characters are women and the story reminds us just how important women were to the war effort whether it be replacing the men at the front in manual work or, as in the case of Code Name Verity, flying aeroplanes or being parachuted into enemy territory to serve as an agent behind enemy lines. The tension, and there is a great deal of it, is created by the uncertainty as to whether the heroine will betray vital secrets to the Gestapo after she’s been captured. Read this thrilling book to find out.
The Cyclist is another novel set in occupied France but different from Code Name Verity. It’s part of a trilogy, the next two in the series being Farewell Bergerac and Francesca Pascal. The first book in the series, and the only one which I have read, is a resistance story with numerous plot twists, a touch of romance and courage. All the best French resistance stories deal with collaboration and betrayal and The Cyclist is no exception.
Allan Massie is well known but I have to confess I hadn’t heard of him until I read a review of Death in Bordeaux a few years back. I read the book and then set about reading his back catalogue. He is a brilliant writer of historical fiction. I met him at a Book Festival two years and he signed a copy of his novel Surviving (superb). He told me that he’d had difficulty in finding a publisher for this book. How is that? I asked myself, when there is so much dross weighing down the shelves in our bookshops.
Death in Bordeaux is a murder mystery set just before the Germans arrive. It too has numerous twists in plot, a beautifully drawn central character and a very interesting supporting cast. The shadow of the war hangs heavily over it as does the recently finished Spanish Civil War. It has been succeeded by Dark Summer in Bordeaux (terrific) and the soon to be published Cold Winter in Bordeaux.
This is the first of a trilogy. I haven’t read the others yet but I intend to. The author suggested to me that this book, and others in the trilogy, were targeted at women. Well, you can forget that. The book’s audience is anybody who likes a well-constructed credible plot, painstakingly researched, a whole range of interesting characters and plenty of twists and turns. Lavender Road rather reminds me of The Avenue Goes to War, one of RF Delderfield’s Avenue series. From memory, however, Delderfield’s location was middle-class while the setting for Lavender Road is a part of South-West London where a mix of social classes adds to the book’s appeal. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel.
This is the story of two half-brothers who hate each other. Most of the action is set in Berlin, right at the end of the war, when allied bombers from the sky and Soviet artillery from the east are reducing the German capital to rubble. Of course, there are other novels set amongst the ashes of Berlin but what I liked about The Nero Decree was that it had no pretentions to be anything other than a thrilling tale of good versus evil. The good guys were very good and the bad guys extremely evil. This is well-researched, exciting and action packed story with multiple twists. Highly recommended.
Shadow and Light is the second book, and the best, of Jonathan Rabb’s Berlin Trilogy. All three have a senior detective Nikolai Hoffner as the central character. In common with most policemen in recent fiction he comes with a lot of personal baggage but this doesn’t interfere with the plot. In Shadow and Light, he tackles a murder at Berlin’s legendary Ufa film studios in the late 1920’s. What seems a straightforward case at first becomes anything but as Hollywood people, Goebbels and even the great director Fritz Lang become involved. It’s a really exciting novel about the use of film as propaganda, industrial espionage and a dedicated policeman (who is Jewish) battling against the odds to solve a very tricky case.
Those are my choices of ten books aficionados of Second World War fiction would I think, enjoy. I’ve yet to tackle battlefield fiction. There are so many wonderful non-fiction books in this genre on the market that I’d prefer to read about what actually happened rather than what the fiction writer might have thought might have happened. All of them help the reader to understand the war just a little better and the considerable research carried out by the authors lends an air of credibility and a sense of time and place to the stories.