Great fiction, like all art, echoes and reflects the time in which
it is created. This happens whether the author intended it to or
not. Great fiction forces readers to look at themselves, and their
world, and think.
Case in point was Philip Roth's THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA. This
novel asked readers to imagine what would have happened if America
went fascist in 1940. What if?
Another example is Peter Quinn's excellent new historical novel,
HOUR OF THE CAT.
Quinn, author of BANISHED CHILDREN OF EVE, does not have to ask
what if? He deals with the horror of what actually happened
in America and Germany in the late 1930s. He writes a powerful
story about ordinary, well-meaning people suddenly plunged in an
epic battle between "the good, the true" and unthinkable evil. And
in this novel, like life itself, the ultimate triumph of good and
truth is far from assured.
Quinn effortlessly weaves a tale of suspense that alternates
between New York City and Berlin from 1936 to 1938. HOUR OF THE CAT
starts routinely enough as a hard-boiled private eye story. Ex-New
York City cop Fintan Dunne is hired to save the life of a man on
death row convicted of a murder he did not commit. Meanwhile in
Berlin, real historical figure Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and other
German military officers are trying to figure out how to stop
Hitler and his henchmen before they plunge the world into the
Quinn captures perfectly the sense of dread from that period.
Dunne, Canaris and another real historical figure, Colonel William
Donovan --- former commander of New York's famous Irish brigade,
the Fighting 69th --- have all survived the horrors of the Great
War. They are haunted by the dead slaughtered in places with names
like Ourcq and Somme but confident that it can't happen again.
Reasonable men will stop it.
But not only will it happen again --- this time it will be far
different and worse. This is the dread that grows with the novel.
The Nazis are not only interested in old-fashioned geographic
conquest, but in the pseudo science of eugenics: the belief that
"life unworthy of life" should be controlled and eliminated.
Quinn reminds us that the eugenics movement was not just limited to
the Reichchancellary, but had its advocates in America, where
forced sterilization of those considered physically or mentally
challenged was the policy in many states. The Nazis took it
further, using it as an excuse to murder an entire race.
Twice in this book, we hear the words of Reinhard Heydrich, number
two monster in Hitler's SS: "facts are paltry things in the face of
destiny." And while the madness of eugenics has been consigned to
the trash heap of history, the ability of governments to ignore
facts still has deadly consequences. Witness the recent Downing
Street memo that said "the intelligence and facts were being fixed
around the policy" to justify war in Iraq.
Great fiction echoes.
Quinn manages to skillfully draw you deep into the story and keep
you guessing at every turn. Pretty soon, PI Dunne is battling
police corruption, falling in love with a hooker and searching for
a Nazi SS agent on the streets of New York. Eventually, both sides
of the Atlantic meet in a violent clash.
Dunne is a perfect noir creation: alone, alienated, down on his
luck, a drinker but not drunk with iron clad integrity and a
willingness to stand up for the underdog. At one point, he quotes
his father, "There are only three types of men in the world.
Bullies, their stooges, and them who refuse to be either." Dunne is
clearly the latter and would be right at home sitting at a bar with
Raymond Chandler's classic noir PI, Philip Marlowe.
As he did with his previous novel, Quinn again proves that he is a
great novelist with the eye of a historian. This is a book jammed
packed with historical details. Quinn takes us on a walk through
the Hoover flats --- the shanty city of the homeless and victims of
the Great Depression --- that existed on 12th Avenue by the Hudson
River. We witness an ugly German-American Bund rally in the
Yorkville section of Manhattan, much like the ones my father
described seeing when he was a boy and lived a few blocks
And throughout the book, Quinn writes with economy and compassion
about common people struggling to survive and do the right thing in
Dunne sees a lady sleeping on a subway train heading to the Bronx
and thinks, "Sweet Dreams, lady: a momentary respite from a
lifetime of pennies put away to no effect, gobbled up by the
machinery of history, by high-sounding theories that couldn't erase
the ordinary miseries of lost jobs, savings, aspirations, an
unemployed husband who sat around the house for years until one day
he put on his hat and coat, went out the door, and never came back.
Sleep was the cheapest escape of all, as long as your dreams took
you to a better place."
HOUR OF THE CAT is a brilliant book. Read it. It will haunt you.
Its characters will stay with you long after the final page. Most
importantly, it will make you think and perhaps ponder the words of
H.G. Wells: "history becomes a race between education and
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 22, 2011