A New Kind of War

Manipulated into declaring war on Prussia in 1870, ailing and criminally indecisive Napoleon III of France was quickly defeated and captured on the battlefield in a disastrous few months that led to the final unification of northern and southern Germany and the creation of Imperial Germany.

The author tells this familiar story with verve, relying on diaries and letters from ordinary soldiers to military commanders and royalty.  Enthusiasm was high on both sides but the Germans clearly outdid the French military in well-defined battle plans and overall strategy. Just as important, their leaders were in good health while Napoleon III was ill, uncertain, and issued last-minute changes that were confusing.

The French lines of communication were murky and French retreats were mostly chaotic while German advances were far better organized.  The French had better rifles and an early version of the machine gun, but the German armies had bigger and deadlier cannons.  Both sides used railroads to move troops and supplies, but the Prussian did so far more efficiently and their generals had recent experience fighting the Danes and the Austrians.

Though the term “shell shock” wasn’t invented yet, it’s clear that troops on both sides were traumatized by the piled-up bodies of dead and wounded in numbers that had never been seen before. Likewise, no city had ever been shelled so constantly and repeatedly as Strasbourg which at one point was hit every twenty seconds by powerful explosives, and the emotional toll on its citizens was severe.  And the random shelling of Paris seems a presage of the war in Ukraine.

There are many fascinating pages on the varied reactions around France to Napoleon III’s surrender and the fate of his mammoth army. And the tales of extortion and atrocities committed by troops from various German states in response to the slightest resistance are shocking.  The author has an eye for surprising details, like the fact that there was water under the Paris Opera, discovered after drilling through the foundation, and the author claim helped inspire The Phantom of the Opera novel by Gaston Leroux.

As engaging as it is, the book could have been more reader-friendly.  Maps are gathered at the front so you need to keep paging back to refer to them when following the specific movements of troops in battle–or trying to follow them.  None of the maps show the placement and progress of actual armies as you’d expect from a book so keenly focused on a war.

The chapter on the Prussian sieges of Metz and Strasbourg badly needed plans of the complex fortifications.  Just as frustrating, the book lacks a map of the French départments.  You have to go to Google to figure out where there is partisan activity, for instance, when the Germans besiege Paris.  Likewise when the author talks about where people flee to avoid the German and where exactly German atrocities take place.  There are many handsome period illustrations, but their labels are at the back of the book, so if you don’t want to interrupt your reading, you have to guess what they refer to.

Nevertheless, this is a thorough and illuminating study of  a war that created a gigantic pivot in world history.  ★★★

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery and his reviews have appeared in The Detroit Free Press, The Washington post, The Huffington Post and Salon.


Family Drama and Mystery

Two very different families are central to the plot in Nina Simon’s debut mystery Mother-Daughter Murder Night, and given the recent fires in California, it’s not surprising that fire is just as pivotal.

Fire, and fiery women, even if they’re cool on the outside. Lana Rubicon is a super-stylish “diamond-hard” realtor who’s been forced out of work and has retreated from chic, high-energy LA to a small town up the coast. She moves in with her somewhat estranged daughter Beth needing support during cancer treatment. Will this highly critical woman work Beth’s last nerve? And where does her granddaughter fit into the family geometry?

The other family’s toughest member is wealthy Diana Whiteacre whose first husband was a young duke and whose ailing father is a local landowner. His death pits her and Martin, her Maserati-driving brother, against each other since they have very different dreams for the ranch that they’ll inherit. Martin’s a bit too smooth for his own good.

The men in this novel are either pushy-verging-on-aggressive, or less than competent in contrast to the deeply resourceful women of all ages. And that’s just fine, since Lana’s barbed view of men and power permeates the story and she offers a steady supply of wit and hard-earned wisdom.

There are some minor mysteries tied into the main one that involves two murders and those aren’t too hard to unravel (and neither is the murder weapon), but Simon does a good job of shifting suspicion back and forth among various characters as Lana, Beth and Jack become embroiled in solving the crimes. At great risk to themselves, of course.

Simon’s people are real, her prose is taut especially when describing pain and physical peril, and she excels at making you feel transported to places you’ve never seen. Here’s Lana gazing out a window late at night:

The moon was full above the slough, and the whole world looked flattened out in grayscale wispy clouds, grainy fields, fast-moving current.  Glints of moonlight bounced off the water where harbor seals surfaced, hunting crabs along the mud flat that edged the slice of beach behind the house.

Simon cleverly gave Lana a very rare American surname, Rubicon, to recall the famous decision Julius Caesar made when he crossed the river of that name in 49 B.C.E, breaking Roman law to bring troops into Italy for the first time. The characters in Mother-Daughter Murder Night keep crossing one kind of boundary or another and that makes for an entertaining read.

Simon’s afterword adds another layer to everything in the book, since she wrote the novel when her mother developed lung cancer and they both needed distraction and a project. As such, it’s a powerful gift.  ★★★★

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the hothouse world of academia.

The Regency Jason Bourne is Back


C.S. Harris is a fantastic novelist. Her characters are richly observed, her dialogue is evocative, her plots are exceedingly well wrought, and she excels at atmosphere: you see, feel, and smell every scene in a kind of 3-D. Reading one of her books is immersive, it’s time travel, it’s magic.

Harris’s understanding of the Regency era is remarkable for its depth and range, and she is one of the few authors whose series I’ve stuck with over time because she isn’t disappointing.

Her glamorous, debonair nobleman is Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin. He is gifted with “hearing and night vision” that are “unusually acute” and they help him investigate murders–and sometimes outwit stalkers. He’s also a master of disguise, but he’s no Marvel superhero. In fact, Devlin starts off the 18th book of the series with a profound and troubling disadvantage: a painful leg injury that’s likely to keep this ex-soldier from crossing the Channel to Belgium where “the armies of Europe were massing for what would in all likelihood be one of the most decisive battles in history.” 

He badly wants to join former comrades, but that isn’t on the cards, despite the looming menace abroad. Napoleon has escaped Elba and been welcomed back to power in France with jubilation. The exiled emperor’s shadow has fallen again over Europe–and it has surprising power over Devlin as he becomes entangled in a twisted tale of mutilated corpses, espionage, secrets of seduction and betrayal, witchcraft and werewolves. 

Suspects abound and they could well be French assassins from any number of rival factions.  He himself is attacked and warned off in classic PI style by a huge thug and an oily villain.  As you’d expect, he acquits himself well; even with his injury, St. Cyr is not an easy mark.

One of the best aspects of this series is its social range. Between St. Cyr and his amateur journalist wife Hero, we meet people of all ranks in Regency England: actors, fortune tellers, politicians, aristocrats, thieves, men of the law, servants, governesses, thugs, inn keepers, soldiers, beggars, ferrymen, sailors, merchants, tradesman, vagabonds and many more.  We travel through a London that has disappeared like Atlantis, with Harris as our guide. 

Built with short, punchy chapters, this book has it all: mystery, scenery, adultery, luxury, poverty, cruelty, zealotry,  hypocrisy, bravery.  And the series consistently has some of the most beautiful book covers around.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and has reviewed books at Salon, The Washington Post, Huffington Post and other publications.