by Jan Needle
292 pages, Endeavor Press Ltd.
Review by Bill Kirton
This is an astonishing book. It’s a carefully crafted, beautifully written novel but, as I read, I had to keep reminding myself of that fact because even its speculations seem so authentic, so well supported by evidence. In its pages we find actual historical figures, personages of the highest international stature, names sewn into European and World history, but they’re not handled as icons (ugh! I hate that word), respected statesmen, or even as the monsters their reputations made of some of them. No, they’re people, important maybe, but all with their motives, idiosyncrasies, agendas, and all part of the fabric of the story of one of the most mysterious events of World War II, the strange flight of Rudolf Hess to Scotland in 1941. Or was it perhaps Alfred Horn?
The historical fact of the flight, its potential significance and its long aftermath make it ripe for conspiracy theorists. Hess was, after all, Hitler’s deputy and yet nothing seemed to come of the flight. He was shuffled away to prison, then transferred to Spandau in 1947 where he stayed, its only inmate from 1966 onwards, until his ‘suicide’ in 1987, when he was 93 years old. Everything about the Hess story poses question upon question and the refusal of the UK authorities to release the relevant documents serves only to multiply the suspicions that the truth has never been told. Jan Needle’s book is the closest I’ve come to seeing all the events in a context which makes sense of them. It also questions other ‘facts’ which have become part of the historical record and yet don’t bear close scrutiny. Some of the great myths and heroes of those awful days begin to look not only shabby but actually sinister.
But all this stress on the ‘real’ subject matter is in danger of making it sound like a dry, historical read. It’s not. Its sweep is indeed large, but its focus is tightly held by the groups of individuals whose decisions and actions are behind the whole adventure. Central to the narrative are two main figures. Bill Wiley is distrustful of his masters in the SIS. He’s a flawed individual, something of a womaniser with a sick wife and a young son whom he loves but whose very existence makes Bill vulnerable. It’s through that vulnerability that he comes to accept a part in an operation that will end in the ‘murder of a 93 year old man’.
Then there’s Edward Carrington, a clever linguist whose skills made him a target for the SIS during WWII. He was persuaded to join the organisation as a spy and it’s through his meetings, travels and actions that we gain access to the machinations of the political (and royal) classes at the time and the elaborate structures behind the Hess peace initiative.
Add to them the killers who actually strangled the old man, the politicians engaged in their own internal and external power struggles, and the gentle but brilliant evocation of the various periods during which the action takes place, and you have a complex, layered account of the macrocosm and microcosm of war and the politics behind it.
This is writing without stylistic flourishes and yet which has its own energy and relentlessness as it uncovers layer after layer of the intrigues which combine to activate the dramas. The author moves us smoothly between time frames, making the 1940s feel as dynamic and immediate as the present, and deliberately structuring his narratives to suggest the broader continuum of which the Hess incident is simply one manifestation. The reverberations of some of the past events continue to be felt and we need to deconstruct the foundations of some of the myths into which we’ve bought so trustingly. This is about some contemporary perceptions as well as about mid nineteenth century history. In one of the reviews I read, the writer wondered where fiction ended and fact began. Part of Jan Needle’s point is that so many of what we accept as ‘facts’ are fictions. The ‘truth’ of Death Order is very persuasive.