When a book is nominated for an award, it is worth looking at, even if only to find out why others think it is exceptional. Admittedly, no-one will ever agree what is the best book of the year. This is as it should be, since if we all liked the same thing, life would become boring as there would be no dissention, no discussions and no debates and however a prize winner is decided, there will always be the voices that declare the wrong decision has been made. So, what has made this book float to the surface for consideration for a 2015 BFS award?
The start of the novel encapsulates the seedy PI scenario beloved of US crime writers of pulp fiction, such as Dashiel Hammett. This down at heel investigator lives in London in 1939. It soon becomes clear that this is an alternative 1939. Hitler did not become the chancellor of Germany and we are not on the verge of World War II. In fact, Communist Russia has invaded Germany and the fascists have joined the Jews in Exodus, many ending up in England. This PI goes by the name of Wolf, but it is soon clear that the once potential dictator has sunk to following adulterous husbands and finding missing people. Then a hated (by him) Jewish woman turns up willing to pay over the odds for him to find her sister. People smuggling is not a new phenomenon. Jewish families paid large sums to be smuggled out of Germany as the Communists despise them as much as the Fascists do.
If this was just a novel about Wolf’s investigation, then it would merely be a well paced action thriller. It isn’t. There is much more to it.
Many of us, at some time or another have created stories in our heads. Children do it all the time in play. Many grow out of it as work and responsibility take over. Authors don’t. Only by imagining what characters are doing and how they will react in particular situations can the story take shape. Scenes are plotted mentally, long before they appear on the page.
In the 1939 more familiar to the reader from history books or TV documentaries Shomer is incarcerated in a Concentration Camp. Before this he had been the writer of pulp detective stories, now he is just another Jew. At night, when others sleep, he creates stories in his head. In one, Hitler didn’t rise to power but fled to London along with his henchmen. Familiar names such as Hess, Goebels, Goering, lurk in this new society which is watching the rise of Oswald Moseley, the potential next Prime Minister. It is elements like this that remind the reader of the works of Philip K. Dick, especially The Man In The High Castle, where in an alternative world scenario, the Nazi overran the world and an author is writing a story on which Hitler was defeated.
To call this a delightful book, would do it a disservice. None of Shomer’s imagined characters are likeable. He has all kinds of misfortunes befall them, especially Wolf. At the start, a reader might wonder why these men who tried to exterminate Jews, have been given a relatively easy exile compared to the life which Shomer and his fellows are experiencing. Shomer, though, has a very devious fate awaiting Wolf. What is totally unnecessary, though, are the end notes which make the book appear to be a primer for school children.
This is a book that fully deserves to be on an awards shortlist.