Thursday, May 26, 2016

Midnight in Berlin by James MacManus

Meaty historical fiction is an absolute treat to read. When it is infused with the details of that time period and seamlessly integrates story and history, then you know the author has succeeded in their job. And James MacManus is no exception with his latest novel.

Set in Berlin in the critical years of 1938-1939, Midnight in Berlin follows the life of British military attache Colonel Noel Macrae as he tries to navigate the choppy waters of dealing with not only Hitler's government, but his own.

When Macrae arrives in Berlin with his wife, Primrose, neither are particularly anxious to be in a Germany overtaken by Hitler. Macrae was a sniper during World War I, and he has no desire to participate in another war. However, he is no fool and he sees the truth behind Hitler's pontificating speeches. Hitler wants war and he will have war.

Unfortunately for Macrae, the British ambassador in Berlin believes negotiating peace with Hitler and following a policy of appeasement is the only way to avoid a war. Macrae bangs his head against the proverbial wall time and time again in trying to convince his superior and others in the embassy to open their eyes to Hitler's plans for the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia. And though he is technically not a spy, Macrae finds himself playing the espionage game with Florian Koenig, a top general in the German Army (and Primrose's lover) who informs him of the Army's plans to overthrow Hitler. Macrae is walking a tightrope.

Things become even more complicated when Sara, a Jewish woman who works in the Gestapo's elite brothel, The Salon, asks him for his help in finding out what happened to her brother. Even though it's dangerous to be seen with her, he can't help but fall in love with her.

As the British government continues to appease Hitler and the months roll by with no peace in sight, Macrae becomes desperate for action and makes a choice that might seal everyone's fate.

The vast amount of research done for this novel is mind-boggling. At times, it reads more like a history of Germany in those years than a novel. In certain places, however, there was too much history and not enough story. Nevertheless, it wasn't a hardship to read these sections because they were written so well. But it did detract from the overall plot. The last quarter of the book also felt rushed, as if the author needed to hurry up and finish and didn't have time to write engaging scenes.

But what MacManus succeeds at, and admirably so, is showing the absolute diplomatic failure of the European governments - especially Great Britain. That they utterly failed to see who Hitler really was despite repeated warnings from those who could see the truth is maddening, especially in hindsight. But there were those, like Macrae, who accurately predicted Hitler's actions, and to see their warnings to their superiors discarded so easily is frustrating. Appeasement was indeed the order of the day, and we all know how disastrously that policy played out.

Midnight in Berlin is a terrific read, one that not only entertains, but educates. And that is the mark of a truly good piece of historical fiction.

Note: This review was done from the advance uncorrected proof. I did not receive any remuneration for this review.