LAST GREAT READS FOR JUNE, 2014
Once we Were Brothers, by Ronald H. Balson
Elliot Rosenzweig is an immensely rich Chicago philanthropist. He has given away millions to deserving causes of every religious denomination, refusing to limit his charity exclusively to Jewish organisations, despite the fact that he is a Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz. (And he has the tattoo to prove it.) No, there are needy, deserving souls of every stripe and colour in the world and he will help as many as he can and such is his generosity that Chicago’s mayor dubs him ‘Chicago’s Treasure’. Life, after such horrific wartime experiences, is good indeed.
Until an elderly stranger attacks him at the Opera, screaming that Elliot is Otto Piatek, an infamous Nazi known as the ‘Butcher of Zamosc’.
Elliot is shocked to the core by the accusations, and is determined to get to the bottom of them, for he feels that a man’s worth is measured by his reputation – and despite his denials and the display of his tattoo to try to placate his accuser, Elliot knows that some mud - even a little - will always stick.
So begins Mr Balson’s story, after one of the clunkiest starts ever; in fact I thought the first chapter was so poorly written I nearly didn’t continue, thinking the obvious: ‘Mr Balsom, for a writer you’d make a pretty good lawyer’. Which is one of his occupations.
However! Fairness prevailed – mainly because a previous reader had written in the remarks sheet on the book’s flyleaf: ‘amazing story’. Okay. I’d go a little further. And I am glad I did: Mr Balson eventually hooked me in when Elliot’s elderly nemesis Ben Solomon begins to recount his story to a very reluctant listener, attorney Catherine Lockhart who is railroaded into meeting him by a very dear friend. Ben isn’t just accusing Elliot of being a Nazi Butcher: he wants to sue him for all the money and jewellery that Otto Piatek collected from his Jewish friends, under the guise of safely hiding it until they 'really needed' it. Ben believes that stolen Jewish wealth was the basis of the huge fortune that Elliot has amassed: he must be brought to justice, and, captivated by his story and eventually convinced of the righteousness of his charges, Catherine agrees to represent Ben Solomon.
Ben’s wartime memories are gripping, starting in Zamosc, Poland in 1933. Ben’s father was a factory owner and community leader with a reputation for assisting anyone in need – and that included a penniless Christian woodcutter who asked if he could leave his 12 year old son Otto with them for a while ‘until he got on his feet’. Ben’s family take Otto into their home and treat him as their own and they could not have a friend more staunch and loyal than that abandoned child: ‘yes, once we were brothers’. Deceit and betrayal seemed unthinkable – until poor advice albeit well-meaning, starts the gradual metamorphosis of an honourable, loving boy into a heartless Nazi puppet.
Mr Balson is never going to set the literary world on fire, but he has (after that lamentable beginning) constructed most efficiently another story of the Holocaust that is unforgettable, reminding us yet again of the terrible, rebounding effects of those unspeakable acts that will influence generations of families yet to come – and the strength of his characters, particularly Ben, remind us again of the stubbornness and invincibility of goodness – as well as evil - within man. There should be more Bens in the world!
Wolf, by Mo Hayder
This is Mo Hayder’s seventh novel featuring Detective Inspector Jack Caffrey, and as Ms Hayder’s countless fans of the Gruesome know, Caffrey is a burnt-out cynic for very different reasons than the usual awful rigours of the job: when Jack was eight, his nine year old brother Ewan disappeared, kidnapped by a paedophile who was never prosecuted for the crime; he managed to stay one step ahead of the law until his death, and throughout Ms Hayder’s seven stories with Caffrey as protagonist the reader is reluctantly inched forward with Jack as he keeps searching for answers regarding his brother, always within the parameters of the latest plot – which, true to form, is another blood-and-gutser.
And I don’t say that as a criticism: Ms Hayder is too good a writer to consign her to the ranks of formulaic hacks, but don’t ever start one of her novels and hope for hearts and flowers. You read her books through your fingers, mouth a perfect ‘O’ of horror, and ‘Wolf’ is no exception.
Oliver Anchor-Ferrers, his wife Matilda and daughter Lucia have come to their Somerset holiday home ‘The Turrets’ for a little R & R. Oliver has just undergone a major heart operation and they have decided to let London and his very successful business look after itself until he has regained his health and strength.
Oliver and Matilda both worry about Lucia. Fifteen years ago, a terrible crime was committed in the neighbourhood, a double murder of two teenagers, one the ex boyfriend of Lucia: their intestines were gouged from their bellies and arranged in a heart shape above their hacked and beaten bodies and since that awful time Lucia has not ‘gotten on’ with her life; every career path she has tried has failed through her lack of ability or loss of interest, and as time has passed she has become increasingly embittered with her circumstances – and her parents. They fervently hope that this visit with them to the country house will ease her sore heart – why, she might even start to love them again!
Ah, in a perfect world …… the trouble being that in this world a nightmare is beginning: on the very first day of their arrival Matilda goes out to work in her beloved garden – and discovers reeking intestines shaped like a heart. They are too remote for cellphone coverage, having to drive to the main road for reception, and they discover that the landline is not working. Neither are the alarms that would normally alert their monitoring service. Their car keys seem to have been misplaced. Surely, surely the police would have notified everyone in the area if the monster jailed for the murders fifteen years ago had been released – or (unthinkable) made an escape?
Ms Hayder’s plot thickens expertly and inexorably, until the last hope for the beleaguered family is the escape of their little dog, a note affixed to her collar giving their address and cry for assistance – tragically, by the time she is rescued all that is left of the note is two words: ‘help us’.
A series of fortuitous events introduces Jack Caffrey to the dog, especially the fact that the dog eventually excretes (with much labour) an engraved wedding ring and a gold neck chain. Jack’s detecting skills are on high alert as he endeavours to discover the dog’s owners, and the cryptic symbols etched on the inside of the ring – it is not until much later that he starts to tie in gleaned information to the dreadful events of the past.
Ms Hayder ramps up the suspense to an almost unbearable degree. The reader is taken on a mad trip over the rapids of a twisting and turning plot, with no respite until the last page. And then, even when cast ashore in the shallows at the end of that wild ride, said reader (me) is faced with the worst kind of dilemma: ‘What am I going to read now? What could possibly top that?? ’