Title:                      SS-GB

Author:                Len Deighton

Deighton, Len (1978, 2012). SS-GB. New York: Sterling Publishing

LCCN:    2012450857

PR6054.E37 S697 2012


Date Posted:      October 14, 2015

SS-GB is an alternate history novel by Len Deighton, set in a United Kingdom conquered and occupied by Germany during World War II. The novel’s title refers to the branch of the Nazi SS that controls Britain.

It is November 1941, nine months after a German invasion led to the British surrender. Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, a British homicide detective assigned to Scotland Yard, is called in to investigate a murder of a well-dressed man in an apartment in Shepherd Market. Although the body has two gunshot wounds, Archer is puzzled by the condition of the body, in particular what appears to be sunburn on the body’s arm. To his surprise, the case draws the attention of the highest levels of the German authorities, as an SS Standartenführer, Oskar Huth, arrives to supervise the investigation. Archer soon finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between Huth and Gruppenführer Fritz Kellerman, Archer’s boss and the head of police forces in Great Britain.

Archer soon discovers that the dead man was a British physicist named William Spode and that Spode was involved with the Resistance movement. This leads Archer to George Mayhew, a former colonel in the British Army who is organizing an operation designed to free George VI of the United Kingdom from his prison in the Tower of London and spirit him away to the neutral United States. Archer also develops a romantic relationship with Barbara Barga, an American reporter whom he first met at the Spode murder scene and who appears involved in the mystery. Huth also reveals to Archer the reason for the high-level interest in the murder: Spode was part of a German military team working on developing an atomic bomb.

As his investigation proceeds, Archer finds the dangers increasing, as a subordinate is killed and Archer himself is nearly murdered by a member of the Resistance. Following a clue in the form of an elbow pivot for an artificial arm, Archer travels to a prisoner-of-war camp in Berkshire where inmates produce replacement limbs for war veterans. There he succeeds in capturing Spode’s brother, John Spode, who lost his right arm while fighting the German invasion. Though Spode confesses readily to shooting his brother (who was dying of radiation poisoning), he commits suicide by ingesting a cyanide capsule before Archer can take him back to London. Learning that the German officer escorting him around the camp was a member of the Abwehr, Archer follows him back to London, where he discovers Mayhew conspiring with top Abwehr officials to free the king, an act that would humiliate the SS, the organization in charge of guarding him.

The next day, a public exhumation of Karl Marx from Highgate Cemetery as part of “German-Soviet Friendship Week” is disrupted by a bomb which kills dozens of people. In response the German Army declares martial law and arrests thousands of people, including Archer’s partner, Detective Sergeant Harry Woods. Although Woods assures his friend that they will be able to avoid incarceration by bribing one of the soldiers, Archer soon learns that Woods is wounded in an escape attempt. Kellerman secures Woods’ release, but with a statement that compromises Archer in Kellerman’s political maneuverings against Huth. Undeterred, Archer travels to an English manor house to witness the arrival of an American agent who arrives to negotiate with Mayhew over the king and the atomic bomb secrets. The two agree that the Americans will get the equations William Spode worked out (which his brother photographed before destroying) in return for taking the king out of Britain as well. Although Huth arrives with a force of men, Mayhew comes to a secret agreement with him and the Germans depart quietly.

The following day, Archer and Woods succeed in getting the king out of the Tower, only to find him an invalid as a result of an injury suffered during the invasion. They take him secretly to Bringle Sands, the site of the German atomic bomb research project in England, so that a force of United States Marines preparing to attack the facility can take the king out with them. The attack succeeds in destroying the facility and escaping with research material and key personnel, but an ambush set by Huth (who was forewarned of the assault by Mayhew) results in the death of the king. Although arrested, Archer is freed by Kellerman, who has what he wants—evidence which he can use to convict Huth of aiding the Resistance. In a final meeting before his execution, Huth laments to Archer that the Americans will develop the atomic bomb first and that Mayhew (whom Archer has deduced was Spode’s real murderer) has also got what he wanted most: an honorable death for the king who would have been a political liability in the US, and an incident that will bring about war between Nazi Germany and the United States.

SS-GB is set less than a year after Britain’s surrender following a successful Operation Sea Lion. In 1940, the Germans landed near Ashford, Kent and Canterbury was declared an open city. The German advance captured London but a British rear guard around Colchester slowed the Germans for long enough to enable Royal Navy ships to escape from Harwich. King George VI and Winston Churchill became prisoners of the Germans. Britain’s gold and foreign reserves were shipped to Canada.

In 1941, the British Armed Forces surrendered, Winston Churchill was tried by court-martial in Berlin and executed and King George VI was held in the Tower of London. Queen Elizabeth and her daughters escaped to New Zealand and the Duke of Windsor to The Bahamas. Rear Admiral Connolly formed a British government in exile in Washington, D.C., but struggled to gain diplomatic recognition. Hitler held a victory parade in London, the Soviet Red Fleet was given bases at Rosyth, Scapa Flow and Invergordon, and Herman Goering and Joseph Goebbels were on board the first non-stop Lufthansa flight from London to New York.

World Without End

Title:                      World Without End

Author:                   Ken Follett

Follett, Ken (2007). World Without End. New York: Dutton

LOC:       2007026639

PR6056.O45 W67 2007

Date Posted:      January 10, 2013

At more than 1,000 pages, Ken Follett’s World without End comes perilously close to fulfilling the promise of its title. The second of the thriller writer’s medieval novels, this new supersized story inspires the same question posed by its doorstop predecessor: Too fat to pick up or too engrossing to put down? Naturally the author prefers the latter. Sure of interest in the project, he invited a crew to film him writing the monster, and the program aired in his native Britain.

All this delighted me as I read it. I have become accustomed to Follett’s whipsaw plotting and repeated recourse to violence and rapine from reading his previous medieval effort, Pillars of the Earth. World without End makes for giddy chutes-and-ladders reading; no situation can be reversed too often, no conflict resolved without serial surprises. Follett’s Middle Ages -bestial, political, and venal -are relentlessly eventful.

The setting is again in Kingsbridge, a stout market town in the heart of England whose 12th century cathedral builders were put through the Follett wringer in Pillars. Now comes the turn of their descendants, as the novel follows four principals through the first half of the calamitous 14th century. Two spirited women -one a stubborn and lovesick serf, the other a preternaturally intelligent merchant’s daughter -lead tempestuous lives intertwined with those of two sons of a ruined nobleman. One boy becomes a master architect; the other, rotten to the core, rises in the ranks of the aristocracy through the application of strategic atrocity. As children, these four witnessed a murder on which the kingdom’s fate hinged; as adults, they struggle for power and position amid the interest groups in the town: monastery, nunnery and merchants’ guild.

There should be a movie, but how can you condense this entire epic into one film? It probably is not Hollywood material, since it covers too many characters, too long a time, and one actually has to pay attention to history. We all know that movies are not designed to make us think.

Night over Water

Title:                  Night over Water

Author:                  Ken Follett

Follett, Ken (1991). Night over Water. New York: Signet Books

LCCN:    91017701

PR6056.O45 N54 1991


Date Updated:  June 14, 2015

I had a great admiration for my cousin, Jay Wilson. Jay was a writer for the Lone Ranger on WXYZ in Detroit, before it went national. He was a young officer in the Army during WWII. He and his wife, Francis, were very good to me. They encouraged me to reach out for things more exotic than I would ever encounter in the small town I lived in then. The movie, With a Song in My Heart (1952) about the life of Jane Froman was one of the things they encouraged me to see. One scene in the movie stuck with me – the crash of the USO flight in Lisbon, Portugal harbor, February 22, 1943. The plane was a Boeing 214, The Yankee Clipper, a so-called “flying boat.” It was the only crash in the history of this aircraft.

This book by Follett was the next book he wrote after The Pillars of the Earth (1989) out of his system, Ken Follett returns to the spies, sex, and Nazis that did so well for him in Eye of the Needle. Fascinated by the huge flying boats launched by Pan Am in the late 1930s (the Boeing 314) to fly the north Atlantic route, Follett has cooked up a sort of Airship of Fools or Flying Grand Hotel about a Clipper load of rich folks and lowlifes fleeing England after the declaration of war.

The passengers include a fascist marquess and his family – so much like the Mitfords (an aristocratic British family with Nazi connections) as to include a Nazi daughter and her socialist sister. There is a cuckolded industrialist chasing his pretty wife; an aging movie star; a Jewish refugee physicist; a suspected Mafioso; a rich, powerful, but unloved American widow; the widow’s weak, treacherous brother; and the handsome young jewel-thief without whom no such epic is complete.

The danger that hangs over all these worthies is sabotage of the flight plan by an otherwise trustworthy flight engineer whose wife is being held captive in Maine by nameless rotten scoundrels. The merciless kidnappers want the plane set down early in order to remove a nameless someone before it reaches New York. Since the plane flies rather slowly and since there are three refueling stops, and since the beds make up into comfortable little berths, there is plenty of time for the passengers to search for the marchioness’s priceless rubies, counterplot against the bad guys, stretch the legs in Irish pubs, quarrel, have reconciliations and indulge in a fair amount of good, healthy sex. No technothrills. No psychodrama. Just several pages of good storytelling.