31 May, 2009

The Crooked Cross, by Michael Dean. Book review

Disclaimer: The Crooked Cross is published by Quaestor2000 who have also published my novel Paths of Exile, although I don’t think that has influenced my opinion.

Edition reviewed: Quaestor2000, 2009, ISBN 978-1-906836-13-9. 191 pages.

Set in Munich in 1933, The Crooked Cross tells the story of a disparate group of people attempting to resist Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Senior figures in the Nazi hierarchy, such as Heydrich, Hess and of course Hitler himself, appear as secondary characters. Two of the main characters, the lawyer Glaser and the police superintendent Forster, are historical figures about whom little detail is known. The other main characters are fictional.

Adolf Hitler has just become Chancellor of Germany, and his National Socialist (Nazi) party is steadily increasing its control over all aspects of life. Disagreement is already becoming dangerous, liable to result in punishment beatings, destruction or appropriation of property, imprisonment without trial, or worse. Gerhard Glaser, a lawyer and Public Prosecutor, views the ever-increasing power of the party with concern. Two years previously his attempt to investigate the death of Hitler’s niece, Geli Raubal, was frustrated by an obvious cover-up, and Glaser believes that Hitler was responsible for her death. His failure to obtain justice in that case still haunts him, and when a Jewish art dealer is murdered and the contents of his safe stolen Glaser finds himself embroiled in another unsavoury political cover-up that reaches to the top of the Nazi hierarchy. As his attempts to investigate get him into deeper and deeper trouble, Glaser comes into contact with a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Now he is faced with a terrible choice – accept that the rule of law no longer runs in Germany, or try to take matters into his own hands….

The Crooked Cross provides an excellent – and disturbing – portrait of a society’s slide into totalitarian rule. As democratic and judicial institutions are systematically undermined, to be replaced by an arbitrary and increasingly brutal autocracy, ordinary people find their lives progressively constrained. Rival political parties are banned. Journalists who ask too many awkward questions are thrown out of a job, exiled or simply disappear. Even art is controlled, with art forms such as Expressionism condemned as “degenerate” or “un-German” and their practitioners persecuted. Individuals or groups (including, but not only, Jews) who meet with the capricious disfavour of the authorities may find their property confiscated and their livelihoods destroyed. The law becomes gradually demoted to a tool of oppression, to be used as suits the whim of the new tyrants, large and small. Having done nothing wrong is no defence.

Against this background, Glaser’s journey takes on a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god poignancy. Glaser is no political fanatic, but a decent and honest man who believes in the rule of law. Many readers may well find themselves wondering how they would have acted in his situation. The choices he is faced with – in particular, whether to risk his family’s safety for his principles – make him a compelling character. Glaser contrasts well with the other members of the conspiracy, such as the committed communist Sepp Kunde and the aristocratic socialites Ello von Hessert and her unstable brother Rudiger. The von Hesserts move in exalted circles (Ello is effectively Hitler’s girlfriend for most of the book), with all the privilege that implies. Whereas for Glaser and his family the potential danger is all too real.

The novel isn’t a thriller as such, but nevertheless the plot manages to maintain a high degree of tension. Rather like The Day of the Jackal, the reader may know the outcome perfectly well, but the characters don’t. While immersed in the world of the novel, I found myself suspending disbelief and hoping that the conspiracy would succeed and events would somehow all turn out differently. It’s a considerable skill in historical fiction to make known events – especially events as well known as Hitler’s career – seem open to possibility, and The Crooked Cross succeeds admirably.

All the plot threads are resolved either by the end of the novel or in the Epilogue, including the solution to the art dealer’s murder and the fates of the central characters. A helpful Historical Note explains the underlying history and the liberties taken, and sets out which characters are fictional and which based on real figures. A map would have been useful, but it’s not difficult to consult a modern atlas to find out where the various towns and cities are.

Thought-provoking novel charting a disturbing period in recent history.

More information on the novel and the historical background on the author’s website.


Rick said...

Such a depressing subject that I tend to stay away from it. But not long ago I read something about Geli Raubal's death and the subsequent investigation. I think it was a review of a nonfiction book about these same events, though conceivably it was a review of this same novel.

Carla said...

Depressing, maybe, but worthwhile trying to understand, if only because it would be a lot more depressing to have to repeat it.... The Crooked Cross is only just published, so if it was another review that was jolly quick. Non-fiction is perhaps more likely, especially if it focussed on Geli Raubal's death. In The Crooked Cross the incident is a sort of prologue and the main action happens a year or two later.

kevin said...

This sounds like an interesting novel and, I think, very timely. I think when the historical outcome is known, the tension as you say comes from a different source. Perhaps it is that feeling of inevitability.

Rick said...

"Those who forget the past ..."

I'm not sure whether Raubal was central to what I read or not. But something about an investigation sticks in my mind, and the twilight of law in the early days of Nazi rule. It's even conceivable that it was a review of a nonfiction book that inspired Dean to a fictional treatment.

Carla said...

Kevin - Yes, it is. I'm not sure about the tension coming from the feeling of inevitability, at least that's not how it felt to me. The characters don't know the outcome, and while I was sharing their world I could sort of share their sense that the future wasn't yet fixed. It's the same as when I re-read a book - of course I know the ending, and yet some books (not all) can still create the sense that events might happen differently this time. I think it's something to do with how 'real' the novel and the people in it feel.

Rick - Quite so! There's a very extensive bibliography at the back, so I'd guess it's a long-standing interest, though of course I don't know the genesis of the book. A quote at the front is telling:
"The course of history could have been altered in 1931 if Glaser had been able to insist on holding an inquest ..... (on Geli Raubal)"
It's attributed to 'Hitler and Geli' by Ronald Hayman, published in 1997. That sounds related to the sort of issues you mention, though it's perhaps unlikely that that particular book was recently reviewed, unless there's a new edition or something.

Rick said...

In historical fiction, isn't the final outcome typically known in advance? Not always, and not the fate of non-famous or fictional characters, but usually the big sweep is known.

In a book like this one, where the outcome is both well known and dreadful, I think the suspense is 'forensic.' Rather like (all too topically) air crashes. A cascading chain of failure, that might have been interrupted at many points, but wasn't.

Carla said...

Rick - it is, but people still complain about 'spoilers', which I admit I don't quite get. With quite a lot of HF I find there's not much in the way of suspense for me, and I'm reading mainly for the author's take on the various known characters or whatever historical mystery is involved, or for the 'forensic' angle you mention, of watching the crash unfold in slow motion. But I find that some historical fiction can convince me (while I'm reading) that the outcome isn't known, as of course it wasn't known to the people at the time.

kevin said...

I know what you mean about getting caught up in the characters and feeling with them that they have a chance to alter known events. You feel the possibility, a very natural emotion, but also I think when it comes to something like Germany in the 1930s, you have that known outcome weighing in the back of your mind. The tension between the two feelings can be very powerful and if Michael Dean has done his work he will have made the most of it.

This tension in my opinion can be more affecting than the usual thriller suspense method and is one of the things that makes historical fiction compelling.

Rick said...

'The willing suspension of disbelief' is necessary for all fiction, so it may be rather natural to somewhat partition off our knowledge of historical outcomes. Where the outcome is both bad and very well known, the 'tension' that Kevin mentions comes into play.

Carla said...

Kevin and Rick - Good point. Where the outcome is both known and diasastrous, the characters may believe that what they are trying to avert would be a catastrophe, but the reader is in a position to know it was. That can be very powerful.