Review published on March 30, 2017.
This is a first rate thriller and a realistic fictional account of actual events that shook the world at the height of WWII. Hunting the Hangman is thought provoking, exciting and clearly a labour of love for the author – it is a genuine joy to read.
Hunting the Hangman is about Operation Anthropoid, which was set up by the SOE (Special Operations Executive) in the Autumn of 1941. The brainchild of Eduard Benes, the London exiled Czech Prime minister, the plan was approved and supported by Winston Churchill. The target was Reinhard Heydrich, deputy to Heinrich Himmler, head of the Reich Main Security Office and Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia. It was an audacious plan to assassinate the man in charge of the Nazi regime subjugating the people of Czechoslovakia with relentless cruelty. Heydrich was a man arrogant enough to believe that no one would dare to make an attempt on his life. Hunting the Hangman relates the story from its inception and the recruitment of agents to the execution of the plan, the fall out and terrible aftermath. It is a story of the best and worst of humanity: conviction, sacrifice, betrayal and brutality.
The introduction to the novel provides a short explanation of how Linskey came to the story and how the novel progressed. It also sets the scene for readers new to this momentous event in world history (a brief cast of characters list may also help). The brief quotes that preface each chapter are a clever adjunct to the story.
Reinhardt Heydrich is an enigma; he may not be the best known Nazi but he is the one most people have trouble figuring out. He was clearly erudite, courageous, fiercely intelligent and talented (as well as a highly regarded violinist), yet he is known to history as ‘The Hangman’, ‘the Butcher of Prague’ and even his colleagues referred to him as ‘The blond beast’. His role in the Wannsee Conference and the ‘Final Solution’ is a part of this novel. It is often surmised that Heydrich would have followed Hitler as Fuhrer if the Nazis had not lost the war. That may be one of the motivations behind Benes’ plan. Linskey seeks to get under the skin of this man and explore the complexity of his character and he paints a very credible portrait.
The heroes of the novel are the brave partisans, Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, the men who volunteered for this mission despite knowing the personal sacrifice demanded. Linskey has imagined two men with the usual ambitions of the young, flawed but with a burning idealism, determined and brave. They are keen despite the knowledge of the terrible cost of success and what it will mean for them personally and the people of Czechoslovakia. They are believable young men, not super human but ordinary people rising to the challenge of extraordinary times.
Linskey has a flair for scene setting. For instance, the meeting between Benes and Churchill to agree the plan, or the introduction of Heydrich to the novel as a family man at a photograph session. Or the fear, apprehension, opposition, acceptance and enthusiasm for the plan by the partisans who helped the two men carry out their operation. From the first page where the merits of the plan are discussed: is this an assassination or a murder? Important questions of morality and consequence are explored. From the home counties to the heart of the action in Prague, the denouement at St. Cyril and St. Methodius church, Linskey sketches out places and people that provide real colour to the storytelling.
This is one of the most courageous and conspicuous events of the Second World War, making it ideal fodder for a novelist but also a daunting task to do it justice. Linskey manages to do this. Hhhh by Laurent Binet may be a more literary retelling of the events of Prague, 1942, but Hunting the Hangman is much more engaging emotionally. The novel is meticulous researched and a number of real events are brought to life with reimagined dialogue and descriptive prose.
It is coming up to the 75th anniversary of the incident at the heart of the novel, which was an impetus for Linskey to finally publish a novel that had existed unfinished form for some time. There are two Hollywood movies scheduled this year, Anthropoid and The Man with the Iron Heart and if they live up to the standard of the book in telling the story they could be very interesting. There was an earlier film made in the 1970s called Operation Daybreak.
This is unlike anything Linskey has previously published. He is the author of the David Blake thrillers (also published by No Exit Press). On the strength of Hunting the Hangman I would welcome more historical fiction from him. As the book went along it became more engrossing (as well as very exciting and thought provoking). If you liked Corpus by Rory Clements then I think this novel will interest you. If you want to know more about Heydrich as an architect of the final solution there is a short book called The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting by Mark Roseman, which details how the decision to exterminate the Jewish people of Europe was made in such a speedy and chillingly matter of fact way.
Paul Burke 4/4
Hunting the Hangman by Howard Linskey
No Exit Press 9781843449508 pbk May 2017