Berkley/Penguin-Random House, $26.95, 372 pages, ISBN 978-0-425-27895-6
Every time we start thinking that the deep, thoroughly-explored and fully-drawn well of World War II stories is about to run dry . . . along comes another author with a whole new, and fascinating point of view, coupled together with a totally original plot to disabuse us of the notion. So move over Ken Follett, make way Alan Furst and brace yourself Philip Kerr—there’s a new WW II novelist come to town—and he’s got some serious wordsmithing chops to go along with one of the most interesting new detectives since Bernie Gunther was shanghaied into the Nazi SS.
Ruins of War, by John A Connell opens with a gruesome ritualized murder that takes place in Munich, Germany during the month of December, 1945. It’s been seven months since the unconditional surrender of the Third Reich; the weather is freezing; the city has been destroyed; people are starving and living like rats in the ruins. The American Army is in charge, trying to maintain order while restoring and putting in place a functioning government. At the same time, the Americans are worried about preventing an outbreak of deadly diseases like typhus or cholera, from the lack of clean water and sanitation. On page one, we meet Warrant Officer Mason Collins of the US Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, or CID. He’s on his way to a murder scene that’s unlike anything he’s ever experienced in all his years as a civilian or military detective. When he arrives on-scene he finds a nightmare waiting: an obscenely desecrated human corpse, displayed in so grotesque a manner that it’s making hardened combat veterans turn away and gag.
Collins realizes he’s dealing with a depraved serial killer when a second mutilated body turns up just as his boss—a non-combat experienced colonel who’s more concerned with his position and career advancement than catching the killer puts him on such a tight leash that catching the monster would be impossible. The Colonel’s in full CYA mode and wants deniability if Collins can’t catch the murderer. Collins knows he’ll be the scapegoat. In the midst of all the chaos, the task is all but impossible. Thousands upon thousands of displaced persons, along with deserters, former Nazis trying to escape retribution and the survivors of the concentration camps roam about the shattered country and city. Finding a single madman before he kills again seems an impossibility . . . but Collins is destined to try . . . or die in the attempt.
Ruins of War has enough pathos and joy, good and evil, drama and moral dilemmas to keep any reader happy. But for lovers of historical crime fiction, like me, this one’s a treasure. I expect the author and his character will only improve with age, and, great news! The second Mason Collins novel, Spoils of Victory is now out. We’ll report on it as soon as we get the copy that’s on order. John Connell is as exciting an author as has come down the pike in a good long time. Don’t miss your chance to make his early acquaintance. You’ll be well rewarded.