Monday, 16 March 2015

A story of survival in Nazi Europe

It’s 1942, you’re in Nazi-occupied Europe, your marriage to a Reich citizen has broken up and you’re a British woman, alone. What do you do? And how do you explain it to your own security services when the war is over? Julian Gray’s Interrogating Ellie is a true story, well told

I should start by saying that I know the author, and when I was young, I knew Ellie. Julian Gray is a pen-name; this book, although written as a novel, is substantially true. The people in the book are mostly now dead, but their children are not, and he has preferred to respect their privacy.

Ellie, taken in Austria in 1940 (courtesy J. Gray)
Interrogating Ellie is both well-researched and extremely readable. It is the story of Eloise, or Ellie, Picot (not her real name). She was born in St Helier, in the Channel Islands, in 1915. She and her brother were the illegitimate children of a teenage mother, who had been banished to Birmingham by her family. Ellie was brought up by foster-parents, and eventually found a job as a waitress at a local hotel. In the early 1930s she met a fellow hotel-worker, and in 1938, having just had their first child, they migrated to his home town in Austria and moved in with his family. Ellie took Austrian (actually by now Reich) citizenship. Before long, her marriage broke down, and her husband and his family kept her baby daughters.

Eloise Picot was 27, alone, with no means of support, in a country of which she was nominally a national but which was actually at war with her own. But she had two things on her side – she was attractive, and she was not a fool. After some ups and downs, she made for Vienna. For the next five years, through the war and the post-war occupation, she would live on her wits.

Ellie did – after some difficulty – return to Britain (although not to Jersey) in 1948, and in the 1950s she remarried, this time to an Englishman, and settled in the south of England. She had several more children, of which Gray was one. She died in 1973, aged just 58. She was a complex individual, and her life had not been easy. My own memories of her, for what it’s worth, are good; she was capable of great personal warmth, and was always good with me when I was a child. But I was only 15 when she died, and I never got to know her as an
adult. Reading this book, I am very sorry that I did not. I knew virtually nothing of her life in wartime Austria. Gray and his siblings, of course, did know the bare bones of her life-story, and also that they had half-sisters in Austria. But Ellie did not talk about the war, except to blurt out the odd fact. It was a story that might have been forgotten had her eldest British daughter not chanced to be on the website of Britain’s National Archive in 2013. She casually entered Ellie’s name, using her earlier married surname, and found that there was a file.
She was taken aback by its contents. It turned out that, in 1947, Ellie had applied to be renaturalised as British. In response to her application, she had been interviewed by the British Field Security Service (FSS) in Klagenfurt, the capital of the British zone of occupation of Austria (she had gone there after the war; Vienna, now largely under Russian occupation, had got too hot for her).

The FSS were an odd bunch, rolling into occupied countries with the British Army and quietly taking care of business. Their story has slipped away and is now little known. Their one member who is remembered is the great travel writer and novelist Norman Lewis, who would go on to highlight the oppression of indigenous people in the Amazon basin, and whose reports would lead to the founding of Survival International. Lewis served in the FSS in Algeria, where he was alarmed by the behaviour of French settlers – an episode he recounted in his autobiography, Jackdaw Cake. Later he served in Italy, an experience which was the basis for his most famous book, Naples ’44. One’s impression from Lewis is that everything was a big mess, and that the FSS were bumbling British amateurs who rather muddled through. It is true that they were not, or not all, professionals, and many were (like Lewis) simply soldiers. However, in recent years allegations have emerged that they tortured suspected Communists in postwar Germany. In Klagenfurt, they must have been wary. At war’s end there had been a determined attempt by Tito’s troops to wrest control of Carinthia, which had a Slovenian minority, from Austria.  This had led to a tense standoff between British and Yugoslav troops in Klagenfurt’s town square.

Moreover postwar Europe was full of people who were anxious to secure visas for somewhere more congenial, and therefore claimed to have behaved honourably under the Nazis. Of course they sometimes lied, and the FSS must have been suspicious. Their report established that Ellie had been conscripted into the Luftwaffe early in the war, despite her protestations that she was British. However, when a report was received from Austria confirming that she was indeed British, she was kicked out and impressed as forced labour in a factory in Graz, where she slept beside slave labourers on a concrete floor. She seemed to have used her femininity to get her out of that, and then went to ground in Vienna. Exactly what she did there was not clear.

In Klagenfurt in 1946 or 1947 (courtesy J. Gray)
The FSS transcripts, however, were damning. Their report (which Ellie likely never saw) suggested that she had had liaisons with both German and Russian soldiers and thus slept her way to survival. An internal Home Office memo stated that: “The interrogation report from Klagenfurt ...FSS  is not very satisfactory and presents the subject as an impulsive and irresponsible person. ...This woman is of bad character and requires her British nationality for convenience sake. I submit that we refuse to grant a renaturalisation certificate.” In November 1947 Attlee’s Home secretary, Chuter Ede, recommended (apparently personally) that she not be renaturalised. However, in a curious and very English compromise, the Home Office stated that her bad character was not sufficient to bar her from being granted a visa.

So what had Ellie been up to in wartime Vienna that so upset the FSS? Using their reports on Ellie (parts of which are still redacted), Gray has pieced together the story of a hand-to-mouth life. Best not to give too much away; suffice to say that Ellie learned how to handle herself, and got through the war, although not without trouble. And although she may have used (but not abused) men, she also had a genuine gift for friendship, if Gray’s account is to be believed.  It is a gripping story, and Gray has written it very well. I found myself on the edge of my seat as I read it, and totally forgot that I was reading a real person’s story; it reads more like a thriller. It helps that Gray’s style is simple and unsensational. This is a tight, clean account.

How much is true? It mostly fits the facts Gray has – from the FSS transcripts, and from his own enquiries in Austria in 2014. However, he has invented or changed some things in order to construct a narrative. Thus he has Ellie in a relationship with one Mayer, an Austrian Wehrmacht officer who is part of the anti-Nazi underground. In fact, Mayer is based on a man called Carl Szokoll, who was real enough, and was in Vienna at the time; but there is no reason to believe they met. (There is also no proof they didn’t.) In real life, Ellie and her Austrian husband had not two but three daughters before they split. A friend who, in the book, is killed in an air raid, a Dutchwoman, was also a real person and in this case Ellie did know her, but in real life she didn’t die that way. Is all this all right?

I think it is. There is little here that could not have happened, and Gray is clear about what he knows, and what he has had to invent (he explains all on the website he has set up for the book). In any case, like all good books, Interrogating Ellie is about more than the story it relates. Eloise Picot wasn’t the first person to move to a foreign country, have children there and then find herself separated from her children after a marriage breakdown. Neither was she the last. In this more global age, it’s probably not uncommon. In her case, the separation was further complicated by the fact that she was, in effect, in an enemy country.

There is a further dimension to this book that makes it oddly contemporary. As Gray has said (on the website, not in the book):  “When I first read the file that delivered the British government’s verdict on my mother’s moral character, it upset me ...But as I say in the book, I realised I had to just try to understand what led up to those judgements. ..I do still wonder, though, about the people who wrote those judgements in the file ...What were their lives like, I wonder?”

It is a fair question. Ellie was one step away from forced labour or a concentration camp. She may have slept with those who could protect her, but there is no evidence that she hurt them, or anyone else. Today, more than ever, one could wonder about the lives of those who grant or withhold the right to remain; and how they would fare were they to seek it.

Julian Gray’s website for Interrogating Ellie is here. The book can be purchased as an ebook or paperback on the site or through the usual online and retail channels.

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Mike Robbins’s latest book, Three Seasons: Three Stories of England in the Eighties, is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Scribd and other online retailers, and can also be ordered from your local bookshop. 
Requests for review copies should be sent to thirdrailbooks (at), via NetGalley, or to the author.


Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Ladythrillers

More from the reviewer’s vault. Four highly individual, oddly compulsive thrillers – all by women writers

For some reason one does not really think of women writing violent thrillers. Yet it is hard to see why they wouldn’t.  They have been writing the best detective stories for a very long time (Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh all spring to mind). These call both for good plotsmithing – a prerequisite of the thriller writer, too – and for the ability to get inside the mind of the violent and evil (a skill displayed especially well in Elizabeth Krall’s In Your Sights, reviewed below). Like so much gender stereotyping, this is about preconceptions. But it may also be that women have been less likely to read thrillers, or violent books, for the lack of strong female characters.

The four books I've reviewed below are highly individual in their approach. Krall’s is a psychological thriller with a smart Sydney backdrop. Gloria Piper’s Long Pig is something very different, set in a cult with an appalling secret. But they are equally dark. Chance Maree’s Dark Matter Tiding is a highly unusual and original book with a big dash of science fiction. Finally, T. B. Markinson’s Claudia Must Die is a brisk bit of noir with a cinematic air; I could see it going on the big screen, no problem. Enjoy.

(Disclaimer: The authors kindly supplied ebooks for review. 
The reviews are non-reciprocal.)

In Your Sights
Elizabeth Krall
Elizabeth Krall’s thriller In Your Sights begins conventionally enough. Caroline is an attractive recent widow living alone in a seaside suburb of Sydney. After 18 months of widowhood she’s embarking on an affair with a married colleague, but isn’t sure if she should. One night, confused and worried, she goes out to take pictures in the moonlight, and finds and helps the victim of a particularly sadistic rape. Then she finds that she herself is being stalked by a mysterious photographer who posts his pictures online. Is he the rapist? Will he target her? 

This sounds like the plot of a good solid conventional thriller, but there are a couple of things that lift this book above the average. One is that the Sydney backdrop is done so well. The city feels very vivid; yet it’s done subtly – there’s no sense of the Bridge or the Opera House being in your face. Krall has also got the pacing right; I never felt that things were happening too quickly or too slowly, and the book’s about as long as it needs to be. 

However, what really makes this book work is the psychological portrait of a violent sadist. We actually know who it is a bit more than halfway through (I’d guessed a few pages earlier). From there on, it’s not the point; instead, we are taken right inside the mind of a monster, who feels very real. Krall seems to know (as far as anyone can) how a narcissistic psychopath thinks, and how they see the world. She also understands how plausible, and how intelligent, they can be. She has clearly done her homework, but she also has the good writer’s ability to get inside minds that do not work like her own (or one hopes not, anyway!). Because the reader is made to see how very easily this person can kill, the tension is maintained right to the end. 

As in any book, there are one or two things that could work better. One of the characters has had a career from which a childhood injury would probably have excluded him. One or two minor characters don’t quite come alive. More seriously, Caroline herself didn’t engage my sympathy enough. I didn’t want to condemn her for having an affair with a married man – you’re shown how it happened, and anyway, this was a woman who had been recently widowed without warning, at quite a young age. Yet she seemed somehow insipid and lacking in character. She did improve as the book went on, there were other good guys to root for and in any case, not every reader needs to identify with the protagonist; it’s a personal thing. It’s also worth saying that some scenes are quite hard to deal with, as the villain is a very serious sadist. Anyone who is easily disturbed should maybe find a lighter read.

The fact remains that Krall has, with great skill, looked through the eyes of one of the worst people on the planet, and the result is gripping. Apparently this is the first of three such books set in Sydney (Krall calls it a Sydney triptych). Given her ability to write a psychological thriller, and the enjoyable Sydney background, her readers may be in for a treat.

Long Pig
Gloria Piper
Gloria Piper’s Long Pig starts with a young girl being brought to what appears to be a monastic institution, high in the mountains. A devotee is assigned to care for her. Bit by bit their relationship develops. But there is something wrong here: this isn’t a conventional monastery or a nunnery – it’s a cult. And the girl is not there willingly. Moreover there is something about the place that makes the reader very uneasy. As it turns out, that’s not wrong. This is a cult with a vile, filthy secret. The way it is unveiled will send shivers down your spine.

Piper describes Long Pig as a fantasy novella, but it could also be called a short thriller. It is indeed short – most people will read it in one long sitting – but the length works. Piper allows the horror of the cult to become apparent at just the right pace, with a light touch, so that it never strikes a false or absurd note. If the book were longer, that might not be the case. The number of characters is right for the book, and they are well developed; the plot development is even and sustained; and we’re told what we need to know but nothing more. Moreover the description of the cult, which is a farm, and its surroundings is rich and evocative; there’s no excessive detail, but I felt I was really there. This book feels, for the most part, just right.

Long Pig is great entertainment, but it also raises questions about the nature of cults, how people end up in them, and the abuses that can be hidden within them. Not least of these is the doctrine of eternal life, which is an established part of more than one compassionate religion, but can also be wilfully misused by those who seek the power of life and death over others. Another is that people who look too hard for something in which to believe, and do not analyse it when it is presented to them, can be dreadfully open to abuse. The author provides a brief afterword in which she says that she was a child of the 1960s, which didn’t end well for everyone. “Social movements abounded… Some pushed causes… [others] jumped off the bridge of responsibility into the ocean of drugs… Many poured themselves out in metaphysical movements – New Age, Hari Krishna, Self-Realization, Christian Charismatic Movement, Satan worship… Many crashed and drowned. Yet many resurfaced, born again. I was no exception.”
None of this is raised explicitly in the book, which has a strong narrative pace. It’s first and foremost a good story. If I did have a beef with this book, it was the ending – right at the end, one or two things did strike a slightly false note. To explain why would introduce a spoiler to this review, and I don’t think reviewers should do that; in any case, not all readers will feel the same way. Also, readers should be aware that, in a few places, Long Pig is pretty gruesome. It’s not overdone, but like Krall’s book, reviewed above, it might not be suitable for the easily disturbed.

The fact remains that Long Pig is a little gem; a short, sharp tour de force that uses the novella, or short novel, form really well. Don’t read this if you’re too prone to nightmares. Do read it if you want a short but well-judged thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat – and also, perhaps, raise broader questions about how people exercise power over each other and what the consequences can be.

Dark Matter Tiding 
Chance Maree
This is an unusual book. In some ways it’s flawed; it’s basically not one book but three, and not all of these strands integrate fully with each other or are tied up at the end of the book. Despite this, the book is more than worth reading, because of its originality, the quality of the writing and some very well-drawn, vivid characters.

Dark Matter Tiding opens in Washington DC sometime in the near future. Camera Hence, a drone engineer, is attending a presentation at which she will see some of her drones’ handiwork. It turns out that they’ve been used to take out a group of innocent Afghans who strayed too close to an oil pipeline. Sickened, she plans her own bloody revenge on her employers for the way in which they’ve used her creations. How she goes about this, and whether she succeeds, needn’t be stated here. (I hate spoilers in reviews.) Suffice to say that she winds up in hospital and being questioned by the FBI. At that point, she hears that her father has died, and that she must go to his ranch in Texas, where she must try to save the ranch from the misjudgments of her brother and the machinations of his awful girlfriend. This is the main subject of the rest of the book.
The book thus switches out of one plot and into another just 10% or so through the book, and Camera’s actions in Washington and their consequences are never fully resolved. Instead the author starts telling a completely different story, about a ranch in Texas. Meanwhile, in the background, there is the menace of Dark Matter, which is slowly enveloping the Earth and turning some people crazy and delusional. But the nature of the Dark Matter, and its ultimate meaning for humans, is also never really explained. As we still don’t know why some matter in the universe cannot be seen, the author could have had fun with this. The fact that she doesn’t is also unsatisfying. But mainly, it is never quite clear what the book is mainly about – Dark Matter, Camera’s revenge on her employers, or the saving of the ranch. 

But these flaws don’t spoil the book, because Chance Maree writes really well. When Camera arrives in Texas, the ranch, its surroundings and its history are very nicely described. Better still, some of Maree’s characters really leap off the page. Camera’s feckless brother, Nathan, and her equally useless mother are vivid and believable creations. Nathan’s appalling girlfriend, Kikko, is all too real – she could have descended into caricature, but Maree is too good a writer for that and makes her a genuine monster. There is also a great supporting cast of Texas lawyers, farmhands, petty crooks, film crews, FBI agents and cops, and even a bunch of young people deluded by Dark Matter into thinking they’re vampires.

Moreover, there is a fascinating thread that runs through the book, albeit too subtly sometimes: When something like Dark Matter is making everyone weird, how do you know you can trust your own judgment? It’s a question Camera has to confront at the end of the book, when she must make a grave moral decision – and must first decide whether she is still qualified to take it.

Had the book had a more unified theme, and had it not switched location and plotline so suddenly near the beginning, it would have worked better for me. Maree could have done more with the Dark Matter, too. But it’s still a striking book by an author with real flair and originality. Despite some reservations, I do recommend it, and I plan to read more of her work.

Claudia Must Die
T.B. Markinson
Claudia Must Die is a thriller, but quite an unusual one – part psychological thriller, part road movie, with a touch of bizarre comedy thrown in as well. And it does all sort of work. 

The Claudia of the title marries what she thinks is a prosperous local businessman, and finds that he’s a thoroughly nasty crime boss. Worse, he treats her as a virtual prisoner and is violent. So she takes off to far-away Boston, taking a lot of his money with her. But he’s hunting her down. Then she sees Parker, a woman identical to herself, in a coffee shop, and sees a way of getting him off the track: get his goons to kill her instead, then steal her identity. It nearly works. Trouble is, the goons miss Parker, and kill a third woman, who happens to be Parker’s lover. Worse still, the lover’s cousin is a master criminal himself. Now Claudia not only has her husband’s heavies after her, she has to flee him as well. Plus Parker. Who is, understandably, pissed.

There’s an obvious flaw here: Claudia tried to kill one innocent person, and did kill another – so do we care whether she herself gets killed or not? This could spoil the book. But it doesn’t, because the complex interactions between the characters create shades of grey. You grow increasingly attached to them – even to Claudia. Eventually they all set off on a surreal road trip across the US – and by then, I was hooked. 

Claudia Must Die pushes the reader’s limits a bit; there’s a lot going on and you need to pay attention to who’s trying to kill whom, and why. The characterization is also quite complex, and is important to the plot. It’s a technical challenge for the author, and now and then she does nearly lose it. In the last parts of the book, in particular, one or two things don’t work quite as well as they should. In the end, though, Markinson does hold everything together and brings the book to a satisfying conclusion. It helps that the book’s the length it needs to be, no more, no less – and each episode has the length and pace it needs, too. Claudia Must Die isn’t perfect. But it’s great fun, and if you like thrillers, it’ll keep you involved.

It’s also quite cinematic. If I were a screenwriter, I’d be looking back through this book scene by scene, and sucking my teeth thoughtfully. Anyone like to shoot some noir?

See all Mike Robbins’s reviews here

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Mike Robbins’s latest book, Three Seasons: Three Stories of England in the Eighties, is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Scribd and other online retailers, and can also be ordered from your local bookshop. Requests for review copies should be sent to thirdrailbooks (at), or to the author.