Only four books this time around, must do better (and blog more!)
Welcome to my monthly reviews! First up another installment of the PC Grant series, by Ben Aaronovitch. The third book, Whispers Under Ground, tracks the adventures of the magical London Metropolitan policeman Peter Grant to the city’s iconic transport system, the Tube.
When the son of an American senator is found dead on the tracks between stations, Peter and the rest of the Folly (his boss Thomas Nightingale and his newest magical constable Lesley May) are called into to investigate. There’s something funny about James Gallagher’s death, he’s been stabbed with a shard of pottery which reeks of magic. With an inquisitive FBI agent monitoring the investigation, Peter faces his most baffling case yet.
Whispers Under Ground is great fun, but it’s also clever. Lesley was disfigured in the first book, and her ongoing struggle with her new face provides emotional depth to the series. Aaronovitch is a devotee of London and its history, and this book explores the Irish contribution to the city. It’s refreshing to read a non-cliched Irish character in British (or indeed, any international) book, although the artist Ryan Carroll does say “fecking” a little too often.
The Irish in Britain also feature in Hilary Mantel’s Fludd, a curious little novella about the Catholic church in 1950s England. Set in the grim northern town of Fetherhoughton, it opens with the boozy priest of the parish being forced to take down several saints’ statues by a modernising bishop. One of the great comic strands in the book is the blatant disrespect Father Angwin shows his superior, which is gently ignored by the bishop. The curate Father Fludd is sent to assist in the village, and soon becomes close to Sister Philomena. But is he all he seems?
Fludd is a quick, compulsive read and a very strange little book. Your appreciation may depend on how much you know about Catholicism. Mantel herself was raised in the Irish Catholic tradition, and anyone familiar with the Church will find Fludd darkly funny.
Another author I revisited in June was Stephen King. Three out of the four novellas in Different Seasons have been adapted for the screen, and the first one, ‘Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption’ is familiar to virtually everyone on the planet. Adapted into the stirring and unforgettable The Shawshank Redemption in 1994, the novella version boasts only minor changes; apart from the ending, which is less conclusive and more bittersweet than that of the film’s. It’s worth a read for King’s usual genius at characterisation and voice.
Next up is ‘Apt Pupil’, adapted into a 1998 film starring Ian McKellen. The film is considerably less nasty than the novella. Todd Bowden is a young boy living in 1970s California. Obsessed by the Holocaust, he finds out a neighbour, Mr Drecker, is really Nazi war criminal, Kurt Dussander, in hiding. So begins a twisted relationship which drives Dussander back to murder and Bowden to begin his career as a serial killer. It’s an uncomfortable, relentlessly unpleasant read, and when you are yanked out of Todd’s head at the end, there is a huge sense of relief. One of King’s more unsettling reads, and that is saying something.
‘The Body’ became Stand By Me, an iconic film if there ever was one. The book is considerably more downbeat, especially regarding the fate of the four boys who go on the search for the body of Ray Brower. We could also have done without the extracts of our narrator’s fiction, but overall, ‘The Body’ is a poignant look at childhood and the loss of innocence.
The final story, ‘The Breathing Method’, has been untouched by celluloid. I have to admit I assumed it wouldn’t be up to much for that reason, but I was pleasantly surprised. In true Victorian style (think Wuthering Heights) this is a story within a story. Our narrator, David, is a conventional Manhattan lawyer invited to an old-style gentlemen’s club, where the men regale each other with stories. One Christmas, Dr Emlyn McCarron, a retired physician, tells them about a patient he never forgot, and her determination to have her child no matter what. It’s a delightful little spine-tingler, and there’s a quiet poignancy too.
Finally, a non-fiction book to round out our quartet. Dublin Nazi No 1 by Gerry Mullins details the life of Dr Adolf Mahr, head of the National Museum in Dublin in the 1930s, and also the head of the Irish Nazi Party. It’s a fascinating slice of history, and Mullins refrains from making judgements on Mahr and the neutral Ireland of the time.
Although Mahr described himself as Dublin’s number one Nazi, he was very small fry in the Third Reich as a whole. In many ways the stereotypical German (despite being Austrian) he did not endear himself to his colleagues in Ireland. In the summer of 1939, he took his family for a holiday in Austria. When war broke out, Mahr found himself a persona non grata and none of the Mahrs returned to Ireland until after the war.
Mahr assisted in Nazi radio broadcasts back to Ireland, but the effect on converting the Irish population to Nazism was negligible. An avowed anti-Semite, Mahr did assist in compiling lists of Irish Jews, who would have undoubtedly met a terrible fate had the Nazis crossed the Channel and taken the UK and Ireland. Interestingly, during the 1930s, Mahr struck up a firm and warm correspondence with Albert Bender, an Irish Jew who had lived in California for decades, and was interested in creating an Oriental art collection for the National Museum. Such contradictions are part of the intrigue of Mahr’s character; he assisted Jewish colleagues and friends to emigrate to safe havens, but seemed to see no disparity between this and his membership of an organisation dedicated to these people’s destruction.
Mullins interviewed Mahr’s children and those who knew him for this book (originally published in 2008) and one of the more fascinating chapters details Mahr’s daughter Hilde’s perilous journey from Berlin to Bad Ischl in the aftermath of Germany’s surrender in 1945. Conservative estimates place the number of German women raped by Soviet soldiers during this period at 500,000. In this atmosphere, it’s a marvel that Hilde reached her family safely.
After the war Mahr made numerous attempts to return to Ireland, even writing to Eamon DeValera personally (the letter went ignored). While the Irish State did not welcome former Nazis back to the fold, the Catholic Church had a network allowing Nazis to evade justice. While the numbers are impossible to quantify, several former Nazis ended up in Ireland, or passed through on their way to other countries.
This is a worthwhile read shining a light on hitherto neglected period of Irish history.