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It’s a Mystery: “There is within every man and woman a core of evil only lightly held in check”

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The Abomination

By Jonathan Holt
Harper, 2013

A Man Without BreathAbominationHolt

By Philip Kerr
Putnam/Marian Wood, 2013

In Venice, it is La Befana – January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany – and the whole city is raucously celebrating and has been for hours. Fireworks rain over the canals, masked figures crowd the vaporettos, and the trattorias are filled with revelers consuming endless amounts of grappa. The combination of winter tides, snow and a full moon has brought acqua alta to Venice, the intermittent floods that plagued them almost every year now. On the steps of Santa Maria delle Salute a body has washed up from the icy waters of the Grand Canal. The victim is a woman dressed in the robes of a Catholic priest – a desecration known as the Abomination (Abominatio!).

Katerina “Kat” Tapo, a newly promoted Carabinieri Captain is summoned from her Befana party to assist Aldo Piola, the Detective-Colonel in charge. This is her first murder case but she is one tough, smart, quick study who is, not so incidentally, very good looking. Small wonder that Detective Piola quickly gives her free rein and the narrative turns it into her case while skillfully keeping him in the loop. From the outset it becomes clear that the investigation will be as intriguing and elusive as the city’s labyrinthine backstreets.

Rumour and scandal were as much a part of Venetian life as dance and debauchery. There was even a word, chiacchiere, which meant both “to slander” and “to pass the time pleasurably”.

…Piola said that crime had taken over Venice. It was like a parasite, the sort that feeds on its host and weakens it without ever quite killing it. It slid its tentacles under doors and through windows, along canals and beneath the grand palaces. It was a sea monster wrapped around the city, sharing its life blood feeding off its nutrients. Most of the time it was invisible, but if you knew how to see it, it was there.

The trail of the corpse takes Kat to an abandoned lunatic asylum on the uninhabited Isola di Poveglia. The locals steer clear of the “haunted” Poveglia, but it holds a surprising clue to the victim’s identity. In short order two more bodies surface and these murders hook her up with Holly Boland, a young U.S. army intelligence officer stationed at Camp Ederle just outside Venice, “the largest and most important US Army post south of the Alps.” It’s a return to Italy for Holly, an army brat—she grew up at Camp Darby in Pisa where her father was an officer—who feels torn between her buttoned-down role in Military Intelligence and the Italian culture that claimed her heart at an early age.

Holly is tracking down classified documents stored in the tunnels underneath Camp Ederle that could reveal CIA and NATO involvement in inciting civil war in the Balkans. One of the real shockers is that the documents are written in Serbo-Croat. For a translation, Holly gets referred to an ex-CIA section head, “a real Cold War warrior,” Ian Gilroy. After he tackles the translating, he gives Holly a heads up history lesson:

Ever hear of an operation called Gladio? he said…. In 1990 the Italian prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, went before his parliament and made a rather remarkable confession. Turned out that ever since the end of World War II, with the full knowledge of successive prime ministers, NATO had been running its own covert military network in Italy…its members were ordinary citizens…passionate anti-communists. NATO trained them, drilled them, supplied them with arms and paid them—all in secret.

…[T]he years passed. Over a dozen assassinations, bombings and other atrocities were laid at Gladio’s door….But the point is Gladio was NATO’s responsibility. The CIA knew nothing about it. At least not officially….Oh, we heard rumours. …But that was all it was – rumour and speculation. So we dismissed it as the usual crackpot nonsense. Made us all look pretty stupid when it all turned out to be true.

It seems that Gladio was never really disbanded, official claims to the contrary:

We’re still in Kosovo to this day. Post-Cold War NATO’s gotten bigger, not smaller.

Wait a minute, she said incredulously. Are you suggesting that NATO may have deliberately stoked the war in Yugoslavia?

That’s a resounding “Yes.” By the time Ian has finished with Holly, the old spy has turned her into a whistleblower. (Hmm, that term has a familiar ring.)

Meanwhile, the two murders Kat uncovered have sent her in a startling new direction that meshes with Holly’s pursuits. At first theirs is an uneasy alliance, but as their parallel paths intersect with unsettling revelations, it’s clear that Kat and Holly are heading towards a Rick and Renault moment.

Jonathan Holt

Jonathan Holt

As for the body in priest’s clothing, its existence points to a sub rosa network of female priests and the organizations secretly ordaining them. This leads Kat to an encrypted gossip website, Carnivia.com, which is a virtual Venice. The influential but very hush-hush world of Carnivia holds the city’s secrets. It’s dark knowledge reaches into the highest levels of government and the church, including its most influential figures. The sites founder, Daniele Barbo, is a notorious hacker and the scion of one of Venice’s oldest families. He’s a man already convicted of cybercrimes whose life is being threatened by stealth groups determined to silence him and his virtual city. One of the site’s greatest virtues is the unusually high degree of anonymity granted to its users. His fiercest fight is against the current judicial application by the authorities to open up his servers for scrutiny. Needless to say, Barbo is violently opposed to the government having the right to pry into what its citizens are doing online. Fiction is definitely stranger than truth.

The Abomination is a not-to-be-missed, multilayered conspiracy thriller. It depicts a Venice steeped in everyday pleasure and political paranoia. It mixes history with high voltage contemporary terror (drones on your tail). The Vatican is in bed with the Mafia and the CIA. The novel shines a spotlight on the role of Private Military Contractors (PMCs) used by governments such as the US to distance themselves from operations that may prove controversial. In John le Carré’s latest novel A Delicate Truth, in a passage worth repeating, he has this to say about PMCs or PDCs:

Private Defense Contractors…. Name of the game these days. War’s gone corporate, in case you haven’t noticed. Standing professional armies are a bust. Top-heavy, under-equipped, one brigadier for every dozen boots on the ground and cost a mint.

True to form with such a well-crafted thriller, the ending of The Abomination will take you by surprise – I swear. But it makes perfect sense since this is the beginning of a trilogy. Author Jonathan Holt says in a recent interview, “I’ve tried to design the three books so that they’re a proper trilogy that builds to a genuine climax, not just three books that happen to be a series. So each book will reveal new angles on what was previously taken to be the truth, like opening up a series of Russian dolls.” Nice.

AManWithoutBreathKerrIt’s a long way from present-day Venice, virtual or otherwise, to war torn Germany, the setting of the ninth Bernie Gunther novel, A Man Without Breath. I shudder to think about how the Nazis would have used the Internet. But I have no doubt that Bernie, the intrepid German gumshoe turned reluctant SS member, would have packed a Blackberry with his gat.

We last saw Bernie Gunther in Prague Fatale (2012). That novel was set in September, 1941, when Bernie is summoned to the country house just outside of Prague of Reinhard Heydrich, the notoriously cruel SS boss of Bohemia, as the Nazis persisted in calling Czechoslovakia. Almost immediately the murder of a high-ranking Nazi officer takes place and becomes Bernie’s priority. Kerr visited Heydrich’s house on a trip to Prague and said in a 2012 interview with NPR:

I suppose it was then that I got the idea of turning this particular novel into a kind of traditional country house sort of mystery, in true Agatha Christie style. So it becomes a kind of Downton Abby with SS, if you like.

Mr. Kerr has his tongue firmly in his cheek, since in the novel Heydrich admits to Bernie that he is an admirer of Agatha Christie’s mysteries. This from the key architect of the Holocaust!

Much of Prague Fatale is a psychological duel. In the end Bernie looks death in the eye and walks away.

The Man Without Breath is set in the spring of 1943. Bernie is now at the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau in Berlin. Every ordinary German, in the service or not, knows the war is going badly. Bernie, who worships the god of self-preservation, just wants to survive the end game. But when evidence surfaces of the massacre of more than 4,000 Polish officers by the Red Army in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Bernie gets sent there.

The German propaganda machine, led by Joseph Goebbels, badly wants to prove that this was a Russian atrocity. Their position is that such proof will reduce the evidence of Wehrmacht war crimes and seriously damage the alliance between Russia and the Allied forces. The hope is that this would cut the Russians off from Western supply lines at a time when the Germans are staggering from their recent disastrous defeat at Stalingrad.

Goebbels’ plan is to offer evidence of Russian guilt at Katyn by organizing an investigation by the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau. It is ostensibly an incorruptible professional commission of anti-Nazi Prussian officers and judge. As part of the group, Bernie is to monitor the exhumation of the mass graves, find witnesses to the atrocity willing to talk, and report his findings to Goebbels, who has personally selected him for the job. As Bernie reluctantly puts it:

…Joey could be pretty persuasive…but it was increasingly clear to me that there wasn’t going to be room for me to refuse a man who only had to pick up the telephone and order one of his lackeys to have the Gestapo turn up at the door on Wilhelmplatz to give me a lift to Prinz Albrechtstrasse. So I listened, and after a while I started to nod my compliance, and when he asked me straight out, yes or no, if I would take the job, I said I would…as I walked out of the ministry onto Wilhelmplatz it seemed to me that my own shadow had more substance and character than I did…craven cooperation with a man and a government I loathed, it was nothing more—or less—than an expression I felt for my own person. Sure, I told myself, I had said yes to Goebbels because I wanted to do something to help restore Germany’s reputation abroad, but I knew this was only partly true. Mostly I agreed with the diabolic doctor because I was afraid of him. Fear. It’s a problem I often have with the Nazis. It’s a problem every German has with the Nazis. At least those Germans who are still alive.

In Smolensk Bernie finds himself dealing with a group of hostile Prussian aristocrats. Plus, a killer who is hell bent on getting rid of everyone close to the Katyn massacre—especially Bernie. Oh he manages to save face and skin but not without almost fatal consequences. Once again, Kerr exquisitely captures the ambiguity of Bernie’s position, driving home the point that mordant humor and cynicism are the only tools of survival in a world without morals.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.