Article published on August 27, 2011.
A fierce storm at the entrance to the Med in 1940 has caught a Spanish ship unawares. Her crew, perhaps inexperienced, definitely second rate, is struggling to cope. Her captain spots a lifeboat in the water and somehow manages to rescue the four German passengers. He takes them to Portugal and is given a mysterious, golden, Masonic medallion.
That raises possibilities. Is this a war story, or Indiana Gonzalez and the Medallion of Doom, or perhaps Grandfather of Bourne? None of these in fact. Its a suspense thriller, set in post first world war Munich and with more gentle twists in it than a corkscrew. The basic plot’s quite simple. Two cousins, one the sadist son of a Baron’s wife, the other, Paul, the subservient son of her sister, grow up loathing each other. A mystery surrounds what happened to Paul’s father over how and where he died and Paul devotes much of his life to solving this mystery. His detested cousin becomes a brownshirt, involves himself in much thuggery during the failed coup of 1923 and rises through the Nazi hierarchy.
Paul meanwhile works for a coal delivery merchant and then a grocer, persuades the grocer to open a bank to deal in stocks at that time when hyperinflation is rendering the Deutschmark worth considerably less than the paper its printed on and takes his first steps towards freemasonry. Then, after a run in or two with his cousin and a brutal fight, he disappears into Africa for ten years to chase down the shadowy Clovis Nagel to get to the bottom of what happened to his father.
After that he returns to Munich and the plot becomes rather less plausible.
Its a good read, with lots of action and good characterization, but lacks the depth that could have made it a great work. The fleeting images of life in Munich in the twenties are fascinating, the sketches of brownshirt behaviour and the rise of Hitler are excellent, if brief and undeveloped. Unfortunately the plot is ultimately weak and unconvincing.
For me, I’d have liked this to be twice as long, include much more about life in Germany in the twenties and thirties, and really develop the African end of the story. With that the comparison with Follet made of Gomex-Jurado by some reviewers might, just, become true.