Review: Ashes to Ashes, Barbara Nadel
It is 29 December 1940, and London is in the grips of the worst bombing conflagration of the Battle of Britain. Hitler has ordered the razing of London and the main target of the attack is St. Paul's Cathedral. Knowing that the pride and fighting will of his entire nation are at stake, Winston Churchill personally orders all hands to defend the church, come what may. It is a terrible night as incendiary bombs rain down and spark fires wherever they fall, followed by high explosive bombs to fan the flames.
Francis Hancock, a half-Indian shell-shocked Great War veteran, takes cover from this barrage in St. Paul's. Claustrophobic and on the verge of panic, he listens to the sirens howl up above, the bombs thud into the City, buildings splinter and collapse, while his fellow Londoners in the crypt whisper about a foul-mouthed girl who has gone missing in the church. It's not long before he volunteers to find her, more to get out of that cramped crypt than anything else. Except, when a night watchman tells him of a terrible secret surrounding the girl's disappearance, and is himself thrown from the highest point in the building by an unseen murderer shortly thereafter, Francis Hancock's life is suddenly in greater danger than if he tried to venture out into the immolated streets.
Last week I reviewed River of the Dead, and if I had some reservations about that book, I have few about this novel. Ashes to Ashes is a triumph of atmosphere and setting. Not only does Barbara Nadel bring World War II and the battle to save London alive in the most vivid way possible, the brooding mystery at its heart is rendered all the more unsettling because we see it from the viewpoint of a physically and mentally broken man. Francis Hancock is as peculiar as he's likeable, an unlikely hero who easily endears himself to the reader. What fascinated me most, though, was how Barbara Nadel took such an iconic building and turned it into a place of cramped murderous possibilities. The tight scenes, the claustrophobic atmosphere, the very real paranoia of a frightened man who can't tell friend from foe, evoke the best of Alfred Hitchcock's suspenseful films.
If the reminders to the reader of why a particular act was committed are as annoying as the occasional devilish monologues by the bad guys - à la Arthur Conan Doyle and his Inspector Sherlock Holmes - the moral dilemma that Barbara Nadel poses at the end of the book isn't. It's a question I've frequently asked myself in this post 9/11 world of ours, that is: to what extent must evil be left to flourish in order to preserve the greater good? It's a question I've thought about many a time; as for the answer - it's a horrifying thing to have to admit, but evil is as much a part of being human as is the good, and this duality makes me cringe when I wonder what I might do when driven to the extreme.