The Incidental Spy
Libby Fischer Hellmann
The Red Herrings Press, September 2015
This newest book by Libby Fischer Hellmann, the author of a number of standalones as well her acclaimed Ellie Foreman and Georgia Davis mystery series, takes a different path entirely: a historical thriller. The protagonist is Lena Bentheim, who, in pre-War, 1935 Berlin, pledges her undying love to Josef Meyer, who reciprocates those emotions, vowing his love “until death do us part.” A few weeks later, Lena, 16 years old, seizes the opportunity to leave Berlin and boards a ship for New York, then heads to Chicago. Neither Josef nor her parents were quite so fortunate.
Josef was “waiting for her in Budapest, and as soon as she could, she would bring him to the States.” But that seems destined not to happen. She takes a job working in the Physics Department at the University of Chicago, headed by Professor Arthur Compton, the department chair and a Nobel Prize-winner. She soon meets and ultimately marries Karl Stern, another Jewish German refugee, in June, 1937 and a little over two years later, their son Max is born. The news in Europe is such that she is sure neither her parents nor Josef have survived the Nazis, with their Final Solution, and despite the new life she has been given, the fates, or whatever else one chooses to call them, are not yet done with her, and more tragedy awaits her.
Lena is now working with a group of physicists who produced the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, in what would become the Manhattan Project. But Lena is forced to spy on the nuclear fission experiments at the University. She feels that “she was nothing more than a pawn . . . Unimportant. Expendable.” The plot is completely convincing, and Ms. Hellmann has given us an engrossing novel, and this reader was totally unprepared for the shocking ending.
Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2015.
A Jack Reacher Novel #20
Delacorte, September 2015
This is no spoiler: As this newest book from Lee Child opens, it is made clear from the first paragraph that someone has been killed, and his body is about to be buried. He is even identified: His name is Keever. And the mise en scene is apparently in the middle of nowhere – a wheat field “in the middle of ten thousand acres of nothingness,” a month before harvest time. Jack Reacher makes his appearance on the very next page, as he finds himself on a train slowing down and coming down to a stop in a town apparently called Mother’s Rest, “which he had seen on a map and which he thought was a great name for a railroad stop . . . He had no place to go, and all the time in the world to get there, so detours cost him nothing.” So on a whim more than anything else, intrigued by the name of the town, he decides to check it out.
Reacher is an imposing figure. He is a retired military cop, with rare attributes: He is brilliant, with admirable reserves of intelligence and strengths (both mental and physical, at 6’ 5” and 250 pounds). As he exits the train, he is approached by an Asian woman, about 5’9” and 40 years old, and very attractive. The woman, Michelle Chang, has apparently been waiting for a man who fit Reacher’s general description, and is disappointed that it is Reacher, and not her colleague, the man called Keever. She is a private detective, ex-FBI, ex-cop from Connecticut. Keever was trying to make contact with a client whose identity is a mystery, but now it is her mystery as there has been no word from Keever since he told Chang he had arrived in Mother’s Rest. Not improbably, Reacher joins her in her quest.
The mystery of the origin of the name Mother’s Rest is not resolved until the final pages of the book; the mystery of Keever’s whereabouts is resolved a bit more quickly, although it is a long and tortuous road discovering the answer. And it soon appears that the tiny village of Mother’s Rest is not as peaceful as it might seem, and the small number of inhabitants are watching every step Reacher and Chang take, and reporting those movements to something of a master criminal.
The book is meticulously plotted, and wonderfully well written – no surprise there! There are some constants in a Lee Child/Jack Reacher novel (and thank goodness for that!) He still abides by his golden rules, the first of which is “eat when you can,” followed closely by “hope for the best, plan for the worst,” and travels with “everything he needed [usually only a toothbrush], and nothing he didn’t.” The book is trademark Lee Child/Jack Reacher, very high praise indeed, and the novel is highly recommended.
(As to that title, that is explained in the last words on the flyleaf: “As always, Reacher’s rule is: If you want me to stop, you’re going to have to make me.”)
Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2015.