I have had a summer break from writing book reviews and intend to return now autumn is on it’s way, although I may not manage to publish the two a week I was publishing before.
For once the summer weather in the UK has been fantastic and I can look back on a couple of holidays in England and France, and also many days at the beach here where I live in Sussex.
I can’t say I’ve been reading a great number of books, and those I have read have tended to be at the lighter end of the market, particularly a couple of good Scandi-crime novels.
The book highlight of the summer was without any doubt The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth, which I shall probably write about separately. The story of a highly dysfunctional family of English Mormons was very unusual and was an education about Mormonism as well as being a very funny and amusing story about how people find redepmtion in even the most-unlikely places.
My last read was David Thomas’s new novel Ostland which I found totally compelling from start to finish. The book concerns the career, throughout the 1940s, of German policeman (and later SS First Lieutenant) Georg Heuser.
Ostland opens in 1959, when young lawyer Paula Siebert joins part of a team investigating Georg Heuser for his participation in major war crimes and mass murder of Jews. Paula interviews Heuser, and finds him to be a devious interviewee with a knack of probing her own weak points in an attempt to turn the questions back on herself. The horror of what he is accused of seems almost impossible to reconcile with this unremarkable man with his prison pallor and thinning hair, his suit to large for his diminished frame.
The book then goes back to 1941 where a serial killer stalks the S-Bahn train system in Berlin, looking for solitary women to attack. Meanwhile the young Georg Heuser arrives at Police Headquarter to spend his first day as a member of the Berlin murder squad. He has had a brilliant academic career and this has landed him a job working alongside Wilhelm Ludtke the head of the Berlin murder squad. The squad are under great pressure to find the “S-Bahn Murderer” and Heuser soon finds himself at the heart of a major investigation as more murders are committed.
This section is written in the first person as though by Heuser himself and we learn of his single-minded adoption of Nazi philosophy and his ruthless pursuit of suspects.
Eventually, as the war develops, Heuser is transferred to work with the SS in the Russia. The German army are still advancing towards Moscow and the bad lands left in their wake are ideal locations for implementing the “Final Solution” which will see the death of millions of Jews. Heuser finds himself made responsible for dealing with train-loads of Jews, a task to which he applies his considerable administrative abilities, to devastating effect.
It is extremely disturbing to read of the way in which Heuser slowly transforms from beomg a Berlin policeman to a Nazi mass-murderer. Because these sections of the book are written in the first person, we really feel that we are inside the mind of a Heuser and it not a pleasant place to be. David Thomas sets up some scenes which will stay with me for a long time to come, and I can only admire the way he has got under the skin of an SS Officer and shown us his thought processes.
It was an inspired idea to interleave these accounts of the war with a much later investigation because as a reader I needed to remember that Heuser was ultimately brought to justice and suffered some sort of punishment (however inadequate that might seem).
David Thomas lists the books, articles and interviews he has drawn on to write this book and I have no doubt that it is an accurate account of what happened. As a novel it makes for a suspenseful and gripping read.