Missing documents about climate change that set off a series of murders in a futuristic Washington set a dozen years from now. A group of high-society sisters whose conflicting loyalties roil the political waters in wartime London and Berlin. Clashing cousins whose colliding loyalties are set against occupation-period politics in Brussels.
Political intrigue is always in season in Ottawa and Washington, and in London and Moscow as well. But the early months of 2023 are a particularly rich period for novels marked by steely political calculation, by betrayal and by intrigue carrying life-or-death implications.
Three new novels – two set in the past, one in the future – stand as inviting testaments to the notion, so searing in the tumultuous present, that the personal is political (and that its combustible corollary, the political is personal, is true as well).
In The Mitford Affair, a striking novel of two sisters who cozy up to dictators and one who resists the lure of fascism, Marie Benedict offers a stark portrayal of a time of war and worry, of Depression and dissent. It is a sobering reminder of the appeal that fascism and communism had in a time of great peril.
In The Last Resort, which takes place in a dystopian time in the next decade, Michael Kaufman gives us an unsettling look at politics gone haywire as changes in the earth’s climate produce mass upheaval. It reminds us that the environmental clock is ticking and that the alarm is about to go off.
And in Code Name Sapphire, set in the middle years of the Second World War, Pam Jenoff sets forth the horrible choices, political and personal, that were (and are) unavoidable in the Europe of the dictators. It reminds us that government officials make some of the decisions that shape our lives, but that humans still must make many of the more intimate decisions that life presents.
In all three volumes the message is clear: Whether in the past or the future, intertwined lives and loves have the power to form a combustible set of intrigues at times when politics – ordinary politics in an extraordinary time – become quite literally world-altering.
Sometimes, as in the case of the Mitfords, the drama comes in world capitals where social life still is set to the three-quarter time signatures of waltzes and clinking glasses in sparkling drawing rooms. Sometimes, as in the case of police detective Jen Lu, the central figure in the Kaufman novel, it comes in the usual Washington way, with planners and plotters riding high on their power – and then practising the low arts of deception and deceit. And sometimes, as in the case of the Jenoff novel, it comes when tyranny transforms ingenues into practitioners of intrigues.
All three books have strong, sharply drawn women at their centre. All three underline the mischief that men make when power clouds their judgment and then warps their ethics. All three celebrate great courage in circumstances of great peril. All three are consumed with death, whether in concentration camps or on a manicured Washington golf course that becomes an unlikely but unforgettable political crime scene. And all three are portraits of politics in deadly turmoil.
“War forces hard choices about who to save,” one of Jenoff’s characters says. The hard choices come often, with unforgiving choices, in all three volumes, whether the theme is saving civilization, or saving the planet, or saving people from the deadly flames of the Holocaust.
Two of these books are based loosely on actual events. The saga of the Mitfords (and two of the sisters’ dalliances with British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler) is one of the most gripping subplots of the Second World War, one freighted with a curious fact: Unity Mitford, the socialite sister who perhaps had an affair with Hitler, was conceived in the mining community of Swastika, Ont. The characters in Code Name Sapphire are loosely based on the heartbreak of the transatlantic liner St. Louis (whose Jewish passengers, rejected in North American ports, were shipped back to Nazi-occupied Europe) and on the heroics of a Belgian underground network adept at ferrying downed flyers back to safety in Great Britain.
But it is the third volume, The Last Resort, that has the most imaginative character and the most beguiling twist. Implanted in the novel – and, quite literally, in the neocortex of the police detective – is a biocomputer with a mind of its own and an uncanny eye for crime clues. Together the detective and the computer – think of it as a kind of computer-chip-off-the-old-block of Sherlock Holmes’s partner Dr. Watson – navigate a political landscape even more chaotic than the contemporary United States, a place where fires have ravaged Rock Creek Park (close to the location of the Canadian embassy residence), the Walt Disney Company has purchased the National Park Service, and Kansas is so dried up and barren that its residents have fled.
In Code Name Sapphire, it is human ingenuity and human intrigues that save the day, a result that might offer us comfort at a time when sober people worry that the power of artificial intelligence is growing, and perhaps growing out of control. In this novel, a resourceful 23-year-old woman commands an underground unit with creativity and shrewdness and another haunting character, a onetime artist who drew anti-fascist political cartoons under a pseudonym, helps shepherd a Jewish widow and her son off the charred continent of Europe.
In the course of all this, we are reminded that, in political thrillers, as in detective stories set in political capitals, the world is shaped by vivid characters and by questions of character. Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Winston Churchill, Martin Bormann, Virginia Woolf, Greta Garbo, Mussolini and Hitler all stroll through the Mitford story. The latter two create the predicate for the Jenoff story about the Belgian underground. Many of us – consumers of fossil fuels, reluctant warriors if not conscientious objectors in the fight against climate change – are unindicated co-conspirators (in the old phrase indelibly identified with the Richard Nixon Watergate scandals of the 1970s) in the Kaufman story about the environment on a rampage.
And so the message here is as clear as the storylines in these three inviting novels. It comes from a line that often, mistakenly, is attributed to John F. Kennedy: that one person can make a difference and that all of us should try. Consistent with the central figures of these three novels, it wasn’t the man who became the 35th president who said that. It was written by a woman, herself a central figure in political history: Jacqueline Kennedy.
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