The Key to Rebecca

 a woman's photo, swastika are opposite ends of a key
Photo within the key shows woman with mask over her mouth

You’ve seen the plot of The Key to Rebecca in a dozen movies. It’s a World War II thriller with the bad guys coming within a hair’s breadth of beating the good guys.

In Key, the really bad guy is Alex Wolff, an European-trained Egyptian returned home to spy for the Germans.

Wolff’s job is to provide Field Marshall Rommel with information that will allow him to destroy the British in Egypt once and for all.

The really good guy is Major Vandam, a British officer whose knee wound sidelined him to intelligence work.

Wolff slipped up returning to Cairo and killed a man; Vandam is after him.

Vandam meets a beautiful Egyptian Jew, Elene, whom he uses to lure Wolff out where he can grab him.

Wolff has a friend and sometime sex partner, Sonja, who is the most famous belly dancer in Cairo.

He cajoles her into helping him steal documents outlining the Brits’ plan to defend Cairo.

Once he has the documents, Wolff must encode the information and transmit it to the Germans using a code based on the novel Rebecca.

Instead of reading The Key to Rebecca, read Follett’s The Eye of the Needle. It’s a far more original work.

The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett
Morrow, 1st ed. 1980. 381 p.
1980 bestseller #6. My grade: B-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Eye of the Needle

“Eye of the Needle” cover. A male figure seen through eye of a bloody stiletto with Nazi symbols.
That’s blood on Farber’s stiletto.

In 1944, the whole world expected the Allies to invade German-held territory on the continent soon.

The question was where.

Ken Follett’s novel Eye of the Needle is based on the hoax of cardboard ships and planes, called the First United States Army Group, that Britain created to suggest they will attack at Calais, near Belgium, rather than at their intended site in Normandy.

From that historical fact, Follett sets up a thrilling cat-and-mouse game in which a German spy, Henry Faber, called “The Needle” because of his preference for the stiletto as a death weapon, discovers the deception and tries to get his evidence back to Germany.

Farber is a professional spy. The other German spies working in England are rank amateurs; Farber has to eliminate them if they see his face.

The spies trying to catch Farber are also little more than amateurs. Percy Goldiman’s specialty is medieval history; before the war Frederick Bloggs was an inspector with Scotland Yard.

The unlikely pair come up with a scheme for getting a photograph of Farber.

Eye of the Needle contains no great philosophical truths, but Follett gets his psychological truths right.

Ordinary people rising to the occasion make this mystery-thriller extraordinary.

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
Arbor House, ©1978. 313 p.
1978 bestseller #10. My grade: A-

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Holcroft Covenant

In the 1970s, a cottage industry of novelists emerged to exploit lingering fears of Nazi Germany.

Cover of “The Holcroft Covenant” American first edition uses Nazi colors red and black. A red bird bleeds through the book's title.
British 1st ed. featured a swastika built of stacks of money.

Robert Ludnum’s The Holcroft Covenant is a product of that movement.

A Swiss bank contacts American architect Noel Holcroft about a trust fund established by his natural father, Heinrich Clausen, and two other Nazis.

The three stole German funds, leaving instructions with their banker for disbursing the stolen money in 30 years to aid survivors and descendants of Holocaust victims.

Signatures from heirs of all trust fund signatories are required for the bank to release the funds, now grown to $780 million.

Noel is to locate those heirs.

What Noel does not know is that at the same time the “repentant Nazis” were setting up the compensation fund, other Nazis were sending thousands of their children to safety so when they became adults in the 1970s, they could establish a Fourth Reich.

Ludnum establishes all that background in the first 10 pages.

The rest of the book is a blur of action with Noel trying to play secret agent, the bad guys shooting everything that moves, and characters with the personalities of Lego blocks.

Ludnum’s epilogue leaves readers with a vision of the future, which we’re seeing come to life in the 21st century.

The Holcroft Covenant by Robert Ludnum
R. Marek Publishers, ©1978. 542 p.
1978 bestseller #8. My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

War and Remembrance

Night bombing is symbolic dust jacket cover for  Herman Wouk's"War and Remembrance."
Night time bombings are memorable part of WWII.

Herman Wouk called War and Remembrance a historical romance, a description that barely touches what’s packed into its 3.5 pounds and 1,039 pages.

Wouk picks up the story of an American naval family—Commander Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, and their three adult children—whom he introduced seven years earlier in The Winds of War.

This novel follows them from the attack on Pearl Harbor through the end of World War II. Wouk uses their stories to transport readers into the wake of war around the globe.

Pug wins promotions, but spends most of his time trying to unsnarl problems abroad at the behest of Roosevelt.

Pug and Rhoda’s eldest son is killed in action, leaving behind a wife and son.

While son Byron serves on submarines in the Pacific, his Jewish wife and their infant son become trapped in Poland.

Rhoda takes a lover, considers divorce.

Pug falls in love; the war continually pulls Pug and Pamela in different directions.

Wouk says frankly his purpose is to show that war must end. He’s too talented a writer to need to preach: His stories preach for him.

To understand War and Remembrance you need not have read Winds but you’ll appreciate both more if you read them as a set.

War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk
Little, Brown, ©1978. 1042 p.
1978 bestseller #2. My grade: A+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Winds of War: WWII history in stories

Herman Wouk’s 1971 bestseller, The Winds of War, immerses readers in world history from 1939 to December 1941, showing great leaders as ordinary men and ordinary men as great leaders.

Dark clouds are background for title and author info
Winds of War bring storm clouds over Europe.

The story is told through the experiences of an American naval family — Commander Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, and their three children — and the people who matter to them: the sons’ wives and their families, the prominent people the daughter meets in her work for a popular national radio show.

Pug is sent at President Roosevelt’s behest to “observe” on behalf of the military in Berlin, England, and Russia. He meets Hitler, Churchill, Stalin.

When Germany invades Poland, one son, who was working in Europe, is trapped along with American Jewish woman with whom he’s fallen in love.

The other son, a navy pilot,marries the senate’s most outspoken opponent to American intervention in a European war. He’s at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bomb it.

Wouk lets all these characters take readers around the world to get a 360-degree view of what led each of the participants into World War II.

Amazingly, Wouk makes every character a believable human being.

The Winds of War is the reading you would have liked to have had in history class.

The Winds of War by Herman Wouk
Little, Brown. [1971] 888 p.
1971 bestseller #7. My grade: A+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Arch of Triumph dark for refugees on eve of WWII

Arch of Triumph is Erich Maria Remarque’s psychological novel about a German refugee in Paris on the eve of World War II.

Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque

Unable to practice medicine legally after the Gestapo seized his identity papers and tortured him, a once-famous surgeon has fled to Paris. Between deportations, Dr. Ravic performs illegal operations for inept doctors and treats whores in a brothel.


Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque

Walter Sorell & Denver Lindley, trans. D. Appleton-Century, 1945. 455 p.

1946 Bestseller #7. My grade: A. 1946 Bestseller #7. My grade: A.


Ravic drifts into a relationship with singer Joan Madou but remains emotionally dead, a “refugee from everything that is permanent,” including love.

His only hope is for revenge.

Encountering his Gestapo enemy, Ravic kills without regret, but also without satisfaction.

As soon as France declares war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939, refugees are packed off to a concentration camp on a night “so dark that one could not even see the Arc de Triomphe.”

But Ravic goes into the darkness carrying his instruments and medicine, telling others, “Don’t be afraid.”

Arch of Triumph is not easy reading.

Remarque deliberately makes readers unravel the characters’ histories: Refugees must conceal themselves.

And the idea of civilians caught in a military operation is gloomy and painful.

In ’39, the German refugee was interned in France. Today, the Syrian refugee is interned in Turkey or Greece.

Same song, different verse.

And that is why Arch of Triumph is still worth reading today.

 © 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Mandarins tread murk of post-war politics

The Mandarins is Simone de Beauvoir’s fictional account of the upper echelons of the political left in post-war Paris, a group that she knew personally.

Gen. Charles de Gaulle and his entourage marching down the Champs Elysees
DeGaulle leads march to thanksgiving service for liberation of Paris.

The book follows two middle-aged characters, writer Henri Perron and psychotherapist Anne Dubreuilh.


The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir

Leonard M. Friedman, trans. Regnery, Gateway, 1956. 610 pp. 1956 bestseller #9.  My grade B.


Henri and Anne’s husband, Robert, were active in the French resistance.

After the war, they work to create a socialist movement separate from the Communist Party and find the ambiguity of politics a greater moral challenge than fighting the Nazis.

Anne is more interested in people than politics, but finds working with war-scarred minds depressing.

On a tour to learn American psychoanalysis techniques, she meets a Chicago writer she thinks is the love of her life.

Their affair fizzles to friendship on his part, misery on hers.

Sooner or later, each of the characters faces a decision: Do I continue fighting, though I’m no longer sure I believe in what I’m fighting for?

The Mandarins should still be read, but it won’t find many takers.

Beauvoir’s novel is too intellectual, the narrative too dispassionate for today’s America.

Even its seamy elements, like the vigilante justice meted out to former Nazi sympathizers, would seem tame to Americans raised on high-definition crudity.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

WW2 Spoof Don’t Go Near the Water Still Funny

William Brinkley’s Don’t Go Near the Water has a trivial plot, absurd situations, ludicrous characters, and a general air of frivolity.

It’s also good-natured and rollickingly, timelessly funny. It will remind you of M*A*S*H* but without the bitterness, booze, and profanity of the later novel.
old Encyclopedia Britannica set


Don’t Go Near the Water by William Brinkley

Random House, 1956. 1956 bestseller #1. My grade: B.


Ensign Max Siegal has been transferred from a destroyer to the Fleet’s Public Relations section where he helps win World War II by assuming responsibility for promoting the Pacific island of Tulura to visiting congressmen.

Max is the ultimate comic hero. He’s brighter than his supposed superiors, witty, perceptive, and above all, human.

Max falls for Melora Alba, who teaches the local one-room school.

Max gets time with Melora by doing janitorial chores while she grades papers and by researching students’ questions at the Fleet library.

Finally Max wins Melora with a gift: The Encyclopedia Britannica.

The PR staff try to make themselves look good while doing as little as possible.

When they succeed, it’s usually because Max is pulling strings behind the scenes.

Max can needle a congressman without being caught or solve a crisis using only his knowledge of human nature.

In the ultimate act of compassion, Max teaches the inept “Marblehead” Nash to use a sextant.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Wall Is Rock-Solid Story of Warsaw Ghetto

John Hersey’s The Wall is a story of the Warsaw ghetto. Unlike many holocaust novels, The Wall focuses primarily on the Jews’ fight to overcome their human natures. Their resistance to the Nazis comes out of that fight.

In 1939, the Jews are being squeezed into a small section of Warsaw, and the Poles who had lived and worked among them are being squeezed out.

The Nazis order the Jews to set up their own governing council.  Political parties from before the war continue their squabbles.  As conditions in the ghetto worsen, the Jews turn on their leaders.

Even in the ghetto, someone with the right currency and connections can get almost anything he wants.  Gradually, the pre-war social and economic leaders give way to a new set of leaders: smugglers, blackmarketeers, resistance operatives. Families are broken up; those who remain form new families of unrelated people.

Hersey presents his story as a series of documents written during the ghetto years and buried for posterity. The story, however, has no need of literary tricks to make it plausible. The behavior of the core characters is so realistic that readers will accept the story as representing the Warsaw ghetto.

The Wall
By John Hersey
Alfred A. Knopf, 1950
632 pages
1950 bestseller # 4
My Grade: A-
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

We Are Not Alone Quirky Novella with Cinematic Appeal

James Hilton’s We Are Not Alone is so British and so visual that reading it is like watching Masterpiece Theatre in your mind.

The story revolves around a harmless eccentric, David Newcome, “the little doctor” of Calderbury. Newcome is a brilliant surgeon with a childlike humility, honesty (he actually admits to now knowing everything!), and genuine concern for people. Newcome and his wife, Jessica, have little in common, except their son, Gerald, a timid boy who, depending on your point of view, has a vivid imagination or is an inveterate liar.

The doctor is called to treat a young German dancer who attempts suicide after a broken wrist prevents her from making her living. Newcome discovers Leni likes children and suggests his wife hire her to look after Gerald.

Jessica learns Leni had attempted suicide and starts wondering what else her husband hasn’t mentioned. She fires Leni just as war breaks out between England and Germany. Germans are no longer welcome in England. Newcome tries to get Leni back to Germany, but while they are on the way to the coast, Jessica is found poisoned.

Newcome and Leni die for the murder, but did they do it?

We Are Not Alone is quirky and intriguing. Its novella-length makes it a comfortable evening’s entertainment.

We Are Not Alone
By James Hilton
Little, Brown, 1937
231 pages
# 10 on 1937 bestseller list
grade B
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni