The Eagle Has Landed

German SS is central to The Eagle Has Landed.

The Eagle Has Landed is a World War II novel that manages to be both exciting and nuanced.

The novel is about a 1943 German plot to kidnap Winston Churchill in a commando operation, which Himmler thinks might make Hitler happy.

Himmler selects Colonel Max Radl, a terminally ill officer, to coordinate the top secret mission.

By coincidence, a spy living on a remote, unprotected stretch of English coastline reports that Churchill will be staying overnight nearby on November 6.

Radl pulls together an unlikely team led by Kurt Steiner, a German officer in disgrace for helping a Jew, with aid from Irish Republican Army operative Liam Devlin and hindrance from Harvey Preston, a captured English soldier who defected to the SS.

Steiner’s dozen commandos parachute in to join Devlin, who had already secured the necessary equipment for the snatch.

Then things start going wrong.

Novelist Jack Higgins’ characters are puzzling, contradictory personalities, not your typical war novel stereotypes. In fact, the Eagle’s battle-hardened German soldiers are too nice. Joseph Wambaugh’s Choirboys would be more believable. They’d fit in with American Colonel Shafto, who thinks nobody can run a war as well as he.

Despite that highly intriguing flaw, The Eagle lives up to his book jacket blurbs.

The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins
Pocket Books ©1975 [paper] 1st ed. 390 p.
1975 bestseller #6. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mr. Crewe’s Career shows politics is not kind

Mr. Crewe is not the hero of the Winston Churchill novel that bears his name, nor is he heroic.

While Crewe has a good brain, a fortune, and aptitude for hard work, he also has one serious handicap: Mr. Humphrey Crewe doesn’t have a lick of sense.


Mr. Crewe’s Career by Winston Churchill
1908 bestseller #1. Project Gutenberg Ebook #3684. My grade: B.

1800's era railroad train

Churchill’s real story is about lawyer Austen Vane, whose father is lobbyist for the Imperial Railroad, and Victoria Flint, daughter of the railroad’s CEO.

Predictably, Austen and Victoria fall in love.

The romance, however, is secondary to the young people’s relationships to their respective fathers.

Austen wins a case against the railroad, and Victoria starts asking her father embarrassing questions.

The railroad lobby, in the person of Hilary Vane, controls the state’s Republican Party and the statehouse.

Austen and Victoria both realize they need to set their own course without cutting off relationships with their fathers.

Meanwhile, Crewe, stymied by the railroad lobby in his efforts to pass reform legislation, declares himself candidate for governor.

Churchill uses Crewe’s career as a way to get an inside picture of the political machine.

It’s not a pretty picture.

Churchill wisely refrains from ending the novel with universal happiness. Too many of the characters have too many regrets for that.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Coniston exposes power politics at the grassroots

Winston Churchill’s narrator confides right away that Conison is going to have two love stories and revolve mainly around the ungainly figure of Jethro Bass.

That description is like saying Moby Dick is about fishing.


Coniston by Winston Churchill

Florence Scovel Shinn, illus. MacMillan, 1906. 540 p. 1906 bestseller #1.
Project Gutenberg Ebook #3766.
My grade B+.


In New Hampshire in the mid-1800s, uneducated, stuttering Jethro falls hard for Cynthia Ware.

Jethro Bass sits on a porch, hands in pockets, legs crossed,
Jethro Bass is a patient man.

Cynthia returns Jethro’s affection, but deplores his political ambition to rise above his station.

Though they part and marry others, each remains the other’s true love.

After Cynthia’s death, Jethro becomes friend to her husband and “Uncle Jethro” to the daughter with the mother’s name.

Jethro both loves and respects Cynthie, but will he give up his political power for her?

Will Cynthie hold to her principles or bend to win the man she loves?

Churchill works things out in proper romantic fashion, but not before he’s treated readers to a fascinating behind the scenes glimpse into grassroots politics (drawing, no doubt, on his experience as a New Hampshire legislator and candidate for governor.)

In Churchill’s pen, Jethro Bass becomes a figure as distinctive and memorable as any creation by Thomas Hardy or Anthony Trollope.

Coniston fairly begs to become a Masterpiece Theatre presentation.

Until it is (and afterward) read the print version.

It is a gem.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Name that novelist

Some of the bestselling authors of the first half of the 20th century had wider name recognition among Americans than many of today’s celebrities.

That may seem odd, but the total population was smaller then, and there were fewer media outlets competing for attention.

Having books in a home was a indication of social status or at least social aspirations.

Besides that, books were not ephemeral products; for the most part, they were printed on high quality paper that lasted.

Can you identify the novelists in these descriptions?

Below are descriptions of five novelists who were names were household words in their heyday. See how many you can identify. (Answers below the photos.)

1. He had the same novel on the bestseller list four times in a span of 11 years.

2. This ex-preacher is said to be the first man to have a novel sell a million copies and the first novelist to become a millionaire.

3. Critical acclaim and sales don’t always go together, but this novelist took first-place honors on the bestseller list before her novel netted a Pulitzer and was instrumental in her the Nobel Prize for literature.

4. This outdoorsman and conservationist was a prolific novelist who wrote nonfiction and children’s literature, too. Today, however, he’s primarily remembered for his writing about the occult.

5. Despite his famous English name, prolific novelistic output, and regular appearance on the bestseller list between 1900 and 1915, this American novelist is virtually forgotten today.

photos of four novelists
Does any of these novelists fit one of the descriptions?

 

The names of the bestselling novelists

1. Lloyd C. Douglas made the bestseller list with his biblical epic The Robe in 1942, 1943, 1944, and again in 1953 when the film version of the novel was released.

2. Harold Bell Wright is the ex-preacher who made money and historical footnotes in the publishing business. Wright published his first novel at the insistence of his congregation. When he published his second, they kicked him out. From then on, writing became his full-time occupation.

3. Pearl S. Buck  won popular and critical acclaim for The Good Earth before making a name for herself as a civil rights and women’s rights activist.

4. Late in life, The Silent Places author Stewart Edward White became interested in psychic phenomena. White wrote The Unobstructed Universe (1940), which he based on communications from his late wife.

5. The Winston Churchill whose name is nearly always joined to the phrase “American novelist” was a household name in the early twentieth century. Churchill  hit the bestseller list with Richard Carvel (1900) The Crisis (1901), The Crossing (1904), Coniston (1906), Mr. Crewe’s Career (1908), A Modern Chronicle (1910), The Inside of the Cup (1913 and 1914), A Far County (1915).

Politics Makes Slim Reading

 

 

American flag waving in breeze

Since today is election day in the United States, I thought I’d roundup some bestsellers that deal with the political election process.

Like so any of my good ideas, it underestimated the problems it entailed.

Coming up with a list of good political novels from the bestselling lists of the first six decades of the twentieth century is harder than it sounds. There are plenty of novels that show the impact of decisions by political officials, but not a great many that dive into the business of electoral politics.

The 1964 bestseller by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II,  Convention, would appear a logical choice but for one thing: It wasn’t a particularly good novel then, and it has dated badly.

My short list of titles that are focused on electoral politics are:

Coniston is a 1906 work by the American novelist Winston Churchill about an uneducated, stuttering county boy who becomes a backroom force in mid-1800 New Hampshire politics.

Churchill’s portrait of Jethro Bass is as good as any from the pen of Anthony Trollope or Thomas Hardy.  My review won’t be coming up here until 2016, but you’re welcome to read ahead.

The Man is Irvin Wallace’s 1964 bestseller about America’s first Black president, which I reviewed here earlier this year. The story has premonitions of this month’s news.

A Lion Is in the Streets by Adria Locke Langley is a 1945 novel written from the perspective of the wife of a charismatic Southern politician. (Imagine Hillary Rodham Clinton writing a novel about her marriage and you’ll see the possibilities.)

After James Cagney paid a quarter million dollars for its film rights, The New York Times described Langley’s novel as “lurid.” It might have been lurid for The Gray Lady in 1950, but it’s pretty tame today.  My review of A Lion Is in the Streets comes out in 2015.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: Linda Aragoni

The Crossing Reveals Early Public Contempt for Congress

Early Map of Louisiana Territory
Louisiana Purchase Territory

The Crossing is a story of the days when Tennessee and Kentucky were the American frontier and New Orleans was a Spanish colony.

The book is narrated by David Trimble, a Blue Ridge lad orphaned when his father goes to fight Indians. He’s taken in by a frontier couple, Polly and Tom McChesney.

When Tom joins George Rogers Clark to fight the British and their Indian allies, Davey goes along as drummer, errand boy, and mascot.

After the colonies win their independence, the McChesneys and Davey settle down in Kentucky.

Davey goes into law. His clients hire him for investigations that take him to New Orleans and involve him in the international intrigue for control of the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi.

Part romance, part historical novel, The Crossing is an engrossing but forgettable novel.

Winston Churchill’s presentation of Davey as a child is unconvincing. Davy’s small stature would not have afforded him “child” status in 1780, especially since he was old for his age.

His investigative work as a lawyer is scarcely more plausible.

What rings true in the book is the tension between the settled colonies and frontiersmen.

Churchill makes clear that the resentment of Americans toward what they view as an unresponsive Congress is as old as the nation itself.

The Crossing
by Winston Churchill
1904 bestseller #1
Project Gutenberg ebook #388
My grade: B-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Image: Map of the Louisiana Purchase Territory, 1903 , from the National Archives ID# 03444_2000_001_A

 

Inside of the Cup is empty for today’s reader

Bible in pew

When the aged rector of St. Johns dies in a booming mid-western city, the vestry look East for “a level-headed clergyman about thirty-five years old who will mind his own business.”

They hit on John Hodder.

For a year, Hodder more than lives up to their expectations. But gnawing at the back of his mind is a sense that the business of the church is making Christians.

Hodder learns that people living around St. John’s despise the church because they suffer daily from the effects of the church leaders’ “sound business sense.”

On the verge of chucking his job, Hodder meets a former member of St. Johns known throughout the city as a man who helps others. Mr. Bentley inspires Hodder to rethink his theology.

Hodder denounces his congregation’s Pharisees, including the major financial contributor whose daughter Hodder loves.

The central dilemma of Winston Churchill’s  The Inside of the Cup is ageless. The novel, however, is done in by Churchill’s ponderous prose. Hodder appears incapable of ordering coffee in less than 500 words.

Whatever value readers of 1913 found in The Inside of the Cup has evaporated.

Or perhaps it just was displaced by the weight of all those words.

The Inside of the Cup
by Winston Churchill
Illustrations by Howard Giles
MacMillan, 1913
513 pages
Project Gutenberg e-book #5364
My grade: C

Photo credit: Bible in Pew by sraburton

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Modern Chronicle Is No Vanity Fair

Winston Churchill’s A Modern Chronicle starts off well, with Tom and Mary Leffingwell assuming charge of his late brother’s infant daughter along with the brother’s debts.

From a beautiful baby, Honora grows into a beautiful woman, steeped in romance and convinced her late father was rich, respected, and distinguished. Readers are ready to see Honora learn the truth about her parents, grow up, and recognize that nice, dull, Peter Erwin is the man of her dreams.

By the end of volume 1, however, Churchill forgets the background he so carefully established.

In the turning of a page, Honora acquires Amelia Sedley’s moral code and Becky Sharp’s ambition. A Modern Chronicle goes to ruin faster than Becky Sharp did.

The next seven volumes of A Modern Chronicle show Honora using her looks and charm to climb the social ladder. By 30 she’s been married, divorced, remarried, and widowed. Through it all she’s rarely missed church and never been seen with uncoiffed hair.

The novel has occasional scenes that prove Churchill has a keen eye for telling detail and true scene-painting skill.

Too bad he didn’t deploy them in support of a better story.

A Modern Chronicle
Winston Churchill
1910 bestseller #2
Project Gutenberg EBook #5382

The Crisis founders in crinolines and clichés

Winston Churchill sets The Crisis amid the crinolines and cavalry officers of nineteenth century St. Louis.

Stephen Bliss and his mother are Bostonian aristocrats who lost their fortunes. They move to St. Louis where Stephen is to study law with the eccentric Judge Whipple, a friend of his father.

Stephen is barely off the boat when on impulse he buys a slave to free and return to her mother. The deed charms the judge, a vehement abolitionist, and infuriates Virginia Carvel, who had hoped to acquire the girl as her servant.

Since Virginia’s father and Judge Whipple are best friends, Colonel Carvel soon meets Stephen., whom he likes.

Another New Englander, Eliphalet Hopper,  is already working in the Carvel’s business where his thrift, shrewdness, and lack of scruples bode ill for his employer.

The tale is the usual romantic nonsense about a Southern belle captivated against her will by a horrible Yankee who turns out not to be horrible.

Churchill brings some historical figures into the story, but his focus is the cliché-ridden love story.  It’s a shame, really.  The book is chock-full of minor characters who deserve to star in novels of their own.

The Crisis
by Winston Churchill
Illus. Howard Chandler Christy
MacMillan, 1901
522 pages
Project Gutenberg e-book #5396
My grade: C
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni