Published by graham on Wed, 05/24/2023 - 07:46
The novel that launched the Spoils of War collection was a MS I penned back in 2016. Finisterre was uncommissioned, my bid to tunnel out of Crime Fiction, and I therefore had the editorial freedom to try out a number of ideas seeded by years of immersive reading around the Second World War. These, overwhelmingly, were non-fiction books, either retrospective studies of long-ago episodes, or contemporaneous diaries and letters authored by the men and women who fought the war.
Finisterre, like most of my books, has two storylines that weave in and out of each other before joining forces within sight of the finishing line. One tracks a young, much-decorated but now disillusioned U-boat commander who has lost his submarine and the rest of his crew in a vicious storm off the Galician coastline of neutral Spain. The other action takes place at Los Alamos in New Mexico where a team of nuclear physicists and engineers are racing to build and test an atomic bomb.
Stefan Portisch, the submariner, will end up at the mercy of Heinrich Himmler’s Sicherheitsdienst. The price of his survival? A key role in a richly byzantine plot to kid the Brits that the Germans are months away from deploying an effective nuclear weapon. At Los Alamos, meanwhile, ex-FBI cop Hector Gomez is investigating the apparent suicide of a Jewish émigré physicist, Sol Fiedler.
Both characters are fictional but both have to move – credibly – in a world peopled with some of the war’s major figures. Think father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer. Think Sicherheitsdienst rising star Walter Schellenberg. Think the Director of MI5’s ‘B’ Section, Guy Liddell. Each of these real-life characters have a role in Finisterre, and by the time they each step into the book, I know I have to have somehow mastered their authentic presence on the page.
Physical description is relatively risk-free. Thanks to the miracle of the photograph, I know what they looked like and even have a clue of two about what they chose to wear. Body language – how they moved, how they responded to a handshake, or a Nazi salute, how distinctive quirks might betray their mood at a given time – is a tougher ask, but I’ve discovered, to my surprise and delight, that a thirty second black and white newsreel clip can yield all kinds of insights. Watch Hitler on a bad day inspecting a line of troops or gazing down at the massed ranks of the Nazi faithful, and it’s suddenly all too easy to share that sense of dread so many of his minions shared as they advanced across the vast spaces of his Chancellery office towards the pasty-faced figure behind the desk.
So far, so good. But these recruits to my fiction, present on the page thanks to their wartime efforts, have to bring themselves and the book alive through dialogue, through silky, or mumbled, or frankly scary exchanges with the likes of Portisch and Gomez. They will be there in scene after scene, not simply as history’s adornments but in their own right, and in their own recognisable bodies, to help push the story along. So how to make them authentically themselves, through gesture and language, while preserving the book’s narrative thrust? In short, exactly how do I marry historical respect with any publisher’s interest in healthy and ever-growing sales?
Oppenheimer, Schellenberg and Liddell all put their individual memories of the war on paper. Those books and diaries are an obvious starting point for what they must have been like in the flesh but the very act of putting pen to paper all too often keeps the reader at arm’s length. Very few people, then or now, write the way they talk and this is especially true when they have a reputation to either create or defend.
A prime example of the latter is Winston Churchill. From countless contemporaneous sources, it’s hard not to imagine what an impossible man he must have been face-to-face: a pouting child one moment, a dismissive martinet the next, a wet-eyed blubberkin when especially bad news appeared at the door. Yet none of this taints his carefully prepared speeches in the Commons or the radio studio, or his sonorous march through seven years of war in his memoirs. When words truly mattered, Churchill curtained his soul.
But any writer knows that it’s soul that makes a novel tick. When two characters in any of my war collection are together, one fictional, the other anything but, the dialogue and the interaction has to be seamless, each reacting to the other, each totally in role, each earning a nod, or a smile, or some gesture of belief. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? Hopefully not.
Finisterre, to my delight, found a home at Head of Zeus and neither my new publisher nor my readers had any problem with the likes of Oppenheimer or Walter Schellenberg acquiring portions of the narrative. Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a phrase for this phenomenon. He called it ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, in other words believing something to be true when it plainly isn’t. Quite why this should happen has always been a mystery to yours truly but in the spirit of optimism I put it down to that strange alchemy on which the writer depends. Crank up the tension, pay respect to the smallest details, and most readers will wet a fingertip and turn the page. A scribe, says me, can ask for nothing better.
Finisterre hit the bookshops in 2017. More titles followed and with them came more opportunities to raise historical figures from the dead and offer them a conversation or two in which they never participated. Figures like Ambassador Otto Abetz in Aurore, Hermann Goering in Estocada, and Rudolf Hess in Raid 42. As I became more relaxed in elevated company like this, recognising my need to create a voice that matched their impact on their contemporaries, I began to wonder whether I might be able to base an entire novel around that central conceit: two characters, one fictional, one historically real, yet both sharing the same strengths, the same foibles, the same fundamental sense of aloneness. The result? Last Flight to Stalingrad.
Josef Goebbels was Hitler’s evil genius, master of the Big Lie, an insatiable womaniser with a stern wife (whom Hitler adored), six kids, and a talent for duping tens of millions of fellow Germans. The bright illusion of the Nazi darkness was largely his invention and earned him a unique place at his Fuhrer’s court. Werner Nehmann was a decade younger, a journalist and story-teller of genius. Born in Georgia as Mikhail Magalashvili, he’d re-invented himself and put his very evident talents at Goebbels’ disposal. The Reichsminister of Propaganda, normally untroubled by either generosity or sentiment, loved Nehmann, loved his recklessness, his disdain for the truth, even his taste in women. Naturally, they get to see a lot of each other and naturally the entire relationship goes very badly wrong. As does – for General Paulus’ Sixth Army – the battle of Stalingrad. Bring these three themes together – Goebbels, Nehmann and Stalingrad – and I sensed another novel in the making. But how to nail Goebbels voice and character on the page?
Happily, Hitler’s Prince of Darkness kept an on-going diary during the war and for once it was impossible not to hear his authentic voice in entry after entry. This was a tribute to Goebbels’ writing skills. He had the rare knack of putting his thoughts directly onto paper exactly the way I suspect he spoke. And, more to the point, the diary entries confirmed to me that life at the very top of the Nazi dung-heap was never for the faint-hearted. Hitler’s tribal chiefs – Himmler, Goering, von Ribbentrop – were forever at each other’s throats and it took a great deal of self-belief and manipulative cunning to survive in the corridors of the Wilhelmstrasse. Goebbels had lots of both but what the diaries also revealed was the man’s essential aloneness. He was writing, in essence, to himself. Why? Because, in Berlin, it was wise to trust absolutely no one.
Werner Nehmann was exactly the tool I needed to prise open this savage truth. By design, he’s arrived at a very similar psychic destination by a very different route but in terms of the novel it makes no difference. Each man senses a little of the other in himself, and for a while they share a wary twist on what we now call ‘bromance’. Dialogue is the key to this and – hand on heart – it was a delight to park myself on the edges of various fictional conversations in a variety of settings and simply record what happened. Nothing to do with me. Simply the way these two men were with each other.
Here's an example. Goebbels has despatched Nehmann to Italy to deliver a deeply passionate appeal to a Czech actress called Lida Baarova who has dumped him. En route to Rome, Nehmann has opened the envelope, read the letter, and handed it to his own actress girlfriend, much to the delight of fellow diners in a hotel beside the Grand Canal in Venice. Weeks later, word reaches Goebbels about this reckless act of betrayal.
‘You were probably drunk, Nehmann. You’re an inventive man. You understand the power of language, of make-believe, and so does your little Czech friend. It was a game you were playing that night. You wrote the script. She performed it. Sadly the audience included one of Ribbentrop’s associates. And for whatever reason he jumped to the wrong conclusion.’ Goebbels leaned forward, intense, his eyes never leaving Nehmann’s face. ‘Ribbentrop’s people will do anything to attack me, to hurt me. You handed them the perfect weapon. Sadly, from their point of view, they were duped.’
‘You. Why? Because they believed you. Because you’re a magician with words. Because you caught my tone of voice on the page and your actress friend was clever enough, or drunk enough, to do the rest. Do we understand each other, Nehmann? Or must I go through it all again?’
Nehmann was staring at him. Perfect, he thought. The perfect cover story. The perfect explanation. The perfect way to keep Ribbentrop’s attack dogs at arms length. A work, in its own small way, of genius. He was about to answer Goebbels’ question but the Minister hadn’t finished.
‘You were never house-trained, Nehmann, and some days I should lock you in a cage, but the fact that you belong in the wild is an asset. That’s why I employ you, believe it or not. You’re different. I know I can depend on that. You also take sizeable risks. Risks, alas, have consequences.’ A thin smile. ‘We agree on that small truth?’
Do exchanges like this help the reader to the next page? The next chapter? Do they build a belief that – in some strange way – this conversation may actually have happened? This was a question a good friend of mine posed after finishing the book, and for a moment or two – hugely flattered – I was stumped for an answer. Then he helped me out.
‘Of course not,’ he gestured down at the book. ‘You’ve done the Goebbels thing. You’ve suckered me.’
He was, of course, right. But Goebbels’ talents maybe hide a deeper truth. That fiction, when it works properly on us, can turn a lie into something utterly credible. Coleridge was right. Our disbelief suspended, we’re very happy to be conned.