Author: Charles McCain
With the war drawing to an end, and the U-boat campaign against allied merchant shipping in shambles, Heinz Schaeffer reevaluated his martial spirit and exercised tactics to maximize his chances for survival. The war was going badly on all fronts and no amount of propaganda could hide it. In the end, he turned his U-977 toward Argentina. First time novelist Charles McCain captures this building sense of desperation and gloom felt by the German military as they tried to persevere against the crushing Allied forces.
An Honorable German introduces the reader to Oberleutnant Max Breckendorf aboard the Graf Spee. The Kriegsmarine is finding success against the Royal Navy, raiding merchant ships with pocket battleships and a growing U-boat fleet. Max, and his life-long friend, the engineering officer Dieter, are men of duty and discipline, wholly committed to the military goals of the Third Reich. Max holds a formidable store of contempt for the British and gives little thought to the basis for the war. His focus is on his career and his tasks. The Graf Spee employs the tricks established by the Royal Navy, confusing the enemy with false flags, and scooping up merchants at will. Max and Dieter command boarding parties that round up the crews and capture British officers, who are treated with honor and ceremony. The Prizes Rules are closely followed; Germany's grim future is yet to appear.
As history dictates, Max's career aboard the Graf Spee is scuttled in Rio de la Plata, and we next find the opportunistic young officer aboard the German merchant raider Meteor, continuing to wreak mayhem. McCain creates characters that the reader cares about, and this is achieved through the engaging interplay between Max and Dieter. Their camaraderie is genuine with effortless humor and charm.
After a series of ordeals that nearly kill him, Max lands in occupied Paris and is reunited with his sweetheart, Mareth. Her place in the novel is primarily to serve as the base for Max's concern. Her family is a class above Max and his family, her father one of the early supporters of the Nazis and well-established in the political arena. The City of Light is anything but a friendly place--intrigue and danger are thinly concealed by the stony faces of the populace. Max's luck nearly runs out when he inadvertently crosses up a Gestapo agent.
McCain serves out a strong sense of foreboding with the shadowy hand of the Gestapo and the effect it has on Hitler's dominions. Even decorated war heroes like Max are inconsequential in the face of the Nazi regime. Fear and violence stream from the top of the Nazi power structure to trap the Germans between their own government and the enemy. Max is clearly insulated from the political realities and is notably shocked as Mareth makes it clear that the Gestapo constitute as much of a threat as the British. Max's self-assuredness is shaken, and doubts arise.
As it happens, Mareth's father, no big supporter of Max, is able to intervene and Max continues his odyssey in the Atlantic as the commander of U-114. He's all business, intent on seeking out the fat convoys that made Prien, Krethscmer, and Schepke top aces. But true to his luck, the "Happy Times" have passed and in one gripping scene his hapless U-boat gets pasted but good by British destroyers.
The author builds each scene with precision and economy, his narrative is forceful and direct. The U-boat scenes are strongly reminiscent of Das Boot. Drawing on an obviously impressive amount of research, McCain grounds the novel well, in the technical sense of the machinery of the ships and U-boats, as well as the events and setting of wartime Germany. It is when the scene shifts to Berlin that An Honorable German (the title, remarkable only in its assertion that such a person is unusual and noteworthy) really mines the richest emotional ore of the novel.
Mareth works in a bunker that houses a flak battery. As the RAF bombing barrages inflict appalling damage to the capital, McCain's novel unveils the brutal events of total war.
As Max's U-boat career progresses and he straddles a stark line between survival and extinction, he finds no glory in his duty. His doubt gives way to fear and when faced with an awful choice between duty and honor, it's with an almost tangible sense of relief he makes his fateful choice. An Honorable German was great pleasure to read, as much for its straight-forward story as for the residue it leaves in the mind. It's with a thankful nod that this reviewer points out that An Honorable German is not simply a story about a naval officer or a U-boat, as much as it is about the terrible price, psychologically and materially and with loss of life, that the German people paid for succumbing to a megalomaniacal dictatorship.
This book comes out May 28, 2009.
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