This is my second post this week for First Monday Crime. I’m reviewing The Constant Soldier and I also have a little Q&A with the author, William Ryan.
A long time ago, in the dim recesses of my past, I did A Level History. Half of my course was looking at European dictators from 1919-39. The country I found most interesting was Germany. How could a country vote in a man with repugnant views? How could the political ideals and ambition of one man lead to the worst war in history and the deaths of millions of people?
Paul Brandt has been terribly injured, fighting the Russians. He’s sent home to his little village in Upper Silesia, that had previously been in Poland, but now annexed by Germany. Paul’s injuries are so bad he’s facially unrecognizable and he’s lost an arm. When his father collects him from the station to take him home, Paul notices a rest hut on the journey. His father explains that it’s a place for the SS officers who are stationed by the nearby camp, to come and relax in the peaceful setting. But it’s not just the hut that catches Paul’s eye, it’s the female prisoners who work there – one in particular, one from his past in Vienna. Paul knows he has to make amends before it’s too late because soon, the peaceful valley will be shaken by Russian tanks.
Inspired by real photos of an actual SS rest hut, William Ryan manages to keep the tension between the most horrific events of the war and the almost carefree attitude of some of the relaxing SS officers. But not all are relaxed. Some are all too aware of their contribution to the camp down the road. Neumann, who’s in charge of the hut, is haunted by a Jewish man he killed. Whilst Ryan doesn’t specifically mention the camp in detail, he gives us enough gold nuggets of information to leave us in no doubt.
Ryan’s writing is sublime and even as I read on the hottest day in September for a century, I had such a clear image of a bitterly cold day in January 1945 when the villagers left and the Russians tanks rumbled in. Most war stories focus on action and battles; there’s little beauty in them. And yet, that’s exactly how I would describe The Constant Soldier – utterly beautiful, incredibly moving and cinematic in description. If Hollywood studios aren’t sitting up and taking notice, they should be – I’m available to help with casting, starting with Ralph Fiennes for Neumann.
After reading The Constant Soldier, I had the chance to ask William Ryan a few questions about the book and his other writing.
I would probably describe your books as historical thrillers. Why have you gone for historical rather than contemporary?
I think most historical novels are about contemporary issues in one way or another. So when I’m writing about the state surveillance of the individual in Soviet Russia, I may well be thinking about today’s state surveillance of the individual in pursuit of the war on terror. And one reason I choose historical settings over more modern ones is that things change so quickly – which means what feels contemporary today seems almost out of date immediately. You have a bit more control over the setting, and our perception of it, when you write about the past. Although even then we tend to put a contemporary gloss on it. If you compare the original Poldark television series to the more recent version, I think you can see how the storytelling is completely influenced by the time the production is made in. That’s me musing about the question rather than answering it but basically I’m curious about the past and how it worked and my novels give me a chance to explore that curiosity.
I’m assuming that a lot of research is required! How and where do you start?
Well, I tend to write about a particular time and place because I’ve been interested in it for some time. I don’t think I’m alone in my fascination with Nazi Germany, for example – how an apparently liberal society in the 1920s changed, within a very, very short time, into a dictatorship that then plunged the world into war that cost millions of lives. Sometimes history takes on a sudden rush of momentum towards something truly terrible and I’m interested in how ordinary individuals coped with that which is what, at the end of the day, both the Korolev novels and The Constant Soldier are about. I’ve probably been researching Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for much of my reading life, in one way or another. That having been said when you research a novel you aren’t too interested in big history, which is really just a backdrop. It’s usually more the everyday experiences of ordinary people that you want to find out about. And for that, you’re best off looking for more personal sources – diaries, letters, memoirs and, in particular, photographs provide the little details that really bring an historical period to life. I do a lot of research – but I try and keep it off the page. The best thing about research is it gives you confidence as a writer – you know how a T34 was driven and that avoids loose and unconvincing description. My view anyway.
With The Constant Soldier, you look at individual Germans and their responses to the war and the deeds they have done. Do you think it’s too easy for us to lump all Germans together from that time and assume they were all evil? I think we often forget the Germans who opposed Hitler and were either killed or imprisoned. Others fled.
There are some evil characters in the novel but I tend not to be too interested in black and white characters – those that are either purely evil or purely good. Most of us are somewhere in between and try to get along through a series of compromises depending on the situation. Obviously when you live in an evil regime, you find yourself having to compromise more and more. Did all of the 6000 or so Germans who worked in Auschwitz set out to be involved in mass murder? Some of them did, certainly – but others probably made a series of seemingly innocuous decisions. The man who owned the album of photographs on which The Constant Soldier is based, Karl-Friedrich Hoecker, was a bank clerk before he joined the SS and a bank clerk again – for the same bank – after the war ended. In between he was the adjutant to the Commandant of Auschwitz. When he was uncovered in 1962 and put on trial his colleagues were amazed – he was, after all, a very ordinary man. And that, for me, is the terrifying thing – that in the right circumstances ordinary men can become mass murderers. And we’ve seen it happen again and again – in the former Yugoslavia, in Cambodia, in Rwanda and in Syria. If The Constant Soldier is about anything, it’s about that.
Are you working on a new manuscript and if so, are you able to tell us anything about it?
I’m back to writing another Korolev novel which I’m really enjoying. It’s set on a Soviet icebreaker trapped over an Arctic winter in pack ice. I don’t want to give too much away but there may be daring plane landings, a shaman’s curse and a little bit of cannibalism. All good stuff.
What can we expect from First Monday Crime on 3rd October? (I was a little disappointed that the mud wrestling ferrets didn’t turn up last time!)
It’s a fantastic line up this month – Stuart Neville, SJ Watson and Antonia Hodgson are all at the top of their game so I’m feeling up against it. It’s the first time I’ve appeared at First Monday and it’s probably the best line up (I don’t include myself in that) I remember. Plus its in a smart new venue that actually has a bar in the same room. There are even rumours Stuart Neville might bring his guitar. So, while there may not be any mud wrestling ferrets, there probably will be a very good time had by all.
A big thank you to William Ryan for taking the time to answer my questions and for writing such a wonderful book!
You can buy tickets for First Monday Crime here and as it’s a new venue – Library on St. Martin’s Lane, Covent Garden – I strongly advise printing out your ticket and bringing it along.
You can buy The Constant Soldier here