The Blackout Murders, by Simon Read

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Simon Read’s The Blackout Murders: The Compelling True Story (2006) is an account of a murder spree in London in February 1942, a story less well known than it would have been had it not occurred in the middle of the war.  With a blackout in force, police resources stretched, it was a time of dislocation, with families wrenched apart, a housing crisis, and large-scale movements of troops through the capital.  Petty crime flourished because of rationing, and prostitution was widespread.

London could be a dangerous place, but not all the dangers came from the skies.  Gordon Frederick Cummins, born in 1914, was an aircraftman but was about to begin aircrew training.  He had had a patchy work history after leaving school but seemed to settle down upon joining the RAF as a rigger in 1935.  He claimed to be descended from a noble family and was nicknamed first The Count and then The Duke because of his superior airs.  While boastful of his sexual conquests despite being married, he never gave any indication that he had psychopathic tendencies (including to his wife).

Taking advantage of the nighttime conditions in London, Cummins committed four murders and two attempted murders in less than a week.  After strangling his victims he savagely mutilated them.  His crime spree, because of the numbers and brutality involved, was likened to Jack the Ripper’s half a century before.  Careless in carrying out his attacks, Cummins was caught surprisingly easily after leaving his gas mask case with his service number on it at the scene of one of them.  Put on trial for the murder of Evelyn Oatley, he unconvincingly protested his innocence.

He was convicted on the basis of forensic evidence, lack of alibis, having large amounts of cash he could not explain, and being in possession of mementoes from the killings.  His defence, having little to work with, valiantly attempted to muddy the forensic evidence and allege police brutality, despite which the jury took only 35 minutes to reach its verdict, an astonishingly short time for a capital offence.  Cummins was hanged at Wandsworth by Albert Pierrepoint (whose name for some odd reason Read omits, referring to him as ‘the hangman’) in June 1942.

The book relies heavily on police files and court transcripts, and delving deeper might have thrown light on Cummins’ motivations.  More disappointingly, Read admits he is very light on secondary sources – literally a handful of books and websites.  The shallowness of the research is evidenced by the random directions he takes.  He often wanders off the point, for example including a potted history of London policing drawn from the websites of Scotland Yard and the Old Bailey, and an extended description of the life history of Frederick Cherrill, head of the fingerprint department, to pad out a book which otherwise would have been rather thin.  A greater sense of the social context, pre-El Alamein, when prospects looked bleak, would have made this a better book.

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Angels in the Trenches, by Leo Ruickbie

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Angels in the Trenches: Spiritualism, Superstition and the Supernatural During the First World War (2018) examines a side to the Great War not often heard about, and then mainly in connection with the Angel of Mons.  However, perceptions of the paranormal played a much more significant role than standard histories suggest, and to redress the balance Dr Leo Ruickbie has delved deeply into newspapers, official records and archives to analyse the ways the paranormal came into play as ordinary people, in and out of uniform, tried to make sense of the extreme circumstances in which they found themselves.  While he has cast his net widely, he has particularly made use of the files belonging to the Society for Psychical Research (he edits the SPR’s magazine Paranormal Review).

There were paranormal aspects to the war even before it began, with predictions of conflagration and Europe deluged in blood, though it did not require a clairvoyant to spot the rise of German militarism and increased tensions between the great powers.  After the declaration of war there were minor incidents interpreted as psychic, such as a strange waking dream construed as relating to the sinking of HMS Amphion on 6 August 1914, but the major one was at Mons, when a hard-pressed British Expeditionary Force was apparently able to escape the advance of the much larger German army by means of a miracle.  Despite its controversially mundane origins in fiction, there was widespread belief in this apparently heaven-sent relief, a belief happily promoted for propaganda purposes.

Trust in such assistance reinforced the sense that the allied side was in the right in the mighty struggle against evil, a more noble cause than one couched in terms of international capital.  Despite the title, though, the issue of divine intervention only constitutes a small part of Ruickbie’s book, but it is emblematic of the paradoxically mystical side of the mechanisation of war and consequent slaughter on an unprecedented scale.  As he demonstrates, the bloody business of aggression between nations can generate coping mechanisms, such as superstitious practices and the wearing of amulets, which may seem irrational but provide comfort and give an illusion of control.

As well as the battlefield, Ruickbie covers the Home Front.  With death touching nearly every family, many of the bereaved, in trying to come to terms with the magnitude of the losses, yearned to speak to loved ones who had passed over.  With the established Church implicated in the war machine and providing a form of consolation that seemed empty to many, interest grew in Spiritualism, with its promise of direct contact now rather than deferred.  The legal system meanwhile took a dim view of exploitation, and as the examples here show, fortune tellers trying to predict the future for money ran the risk of being prosecuted for preying on the vulnerable.

Ruickbie spends time on the SPR’s ‘senior management’, including Sir Oliver Lodge, who wrote the most famous of the descriptions of the beyond claiming to be transmitted by those killed in the war, Raymond, or Life and Death (1916), following his son Raymond’s death at Ypres in 1915.   The book has come in for derision from sceptics, but was influential as part of a mini-genre purporting to show what the afterlife was like and bring comfort to those in a similar situation to Sir Oliver’s.  Yet the SPR made little of its opportunities.  Ruickbie is critical of the Society’s limited efforts to collect spontaneous accounts from the public; by contrast, Charles Richet made an extremely successful appeal to French soldiers.

Instead, the SPR appealed for accounts only from members and personal contacts, obtaining few of them.  Despite what was going on around them, they concentrated the bulk of their efforts on the cross-correspondences.  This was an extended project designed to demonstrate the survival of bodily death by means of communications received independently through several mediums.  These communications could be put together to make a meaningful message not deducible from the fragments themselves, thereby indicating direction by discarnate intelligences.  As a result the SPR missed a significant amount of material from everyday life, while managing to exasperate many of the Society’s members who found the cross-correspondences convoluted, unaware of their implications for the mystical project known as The Plan (something Ruickbie touches on).  Experiences were being reported in the press from all walks of life and classes, but the patrician SPR proved inflexible and found it difficult to adjust to a changing world.

Ruickbie, and Owen Davies in his A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War, have amply demonstrated the extent to which the paranormal played a significant part in the conflict.  There is much less in Ruickbie’s book on the French and Germans, and as he lives in Germany perhaps at some point he will consider delving into the equivalent archives of the then-Central Powers to see to what extent their servicemen and civilians had similar experiences.  Angels in the Trenches is very readable, though devoting a section to each year of the war means he often leaves a thread and comes back to it later.  This results in a certain choppiness at times, particularly evident in the various appearances of the Lodge family, but the strength of the approach is seeing how paranormal aspects developed over the course of the war, and a good index allows the reader to follow a particular thread.

Dr Ruickbie has also contributed several articles to Paranormal Review spinning off from his research:

‘A Vision in Bermondsey, 1917: A Previously Unreported First World War Anomalous Experience’, Paranormal Review, issue 71, July 2014, pp. 28-29.

‘Mrs Salter and the Angels: The 1915 Society for Psychical Research’s Investigation of “Alleged Visions on the Battlefield” and the Angel of Mons’, Paranormal Review, Issue 76, Autumn 2015, pp. 6-9.

‘A Previously Unpublished Account of the Angels of Mons’, Paranormal Review, Issue 76, Autumn 2015, p. 10.

‘The SPR at War: The Society for Psychical Research and the First World War’ (a version of a talk given at the SPR’s conference in 2016), Paranormal Review, issue 88, Autumn 2014, pp. 8-13.

Paranormal Review, Issue 71, July 2014, and Issue 76, Autumn 2015, have substantial sections devoted to a 2-part ‘First World War Centenary Special’ containing articles by a variety of authors on aspects of the conflict.

Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama

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When a novel is prefaced by a complicated chart showing the characters’ relationships, it is a good bet the story is not going to be an easy read, and so Hideo Yokoyama’s 2012 Six Four proves.  On the other hand, the reader might expect a book with ‘One of the best crime novels I have ever read’ on the cover to actually be an exciting crime novel, rather than a slow-paced forensic dissection of Japanese office politics.

The main character is 46-year-old Superintendent Yoshinobu Mikami, a career detective who has been assigned to head media relations in Prefecture D, a regional centre away from Tokyo.  This is an unwelcome move for him because not only has he been prevented from following his natural vocation, but there is so much rivalry between Administrative Affairs, where he now based, and Criminal Investigations (in fact they feel like two separate organisations), that he finds he is not trusted by either because it is unclear where his loyalties lie in their covert power struggle.  Simultaneously, he and his team of three are always under pressure from the press, who possess a sense of entitlement to a constant stream of up-to-the-minute information that is astonishing.  The police naturally want to present the best image to the public and fend off any criticism; and the reporters, with as little effort as possible, want to fill their columns with juicy tit-bits.

The reporters themselves have an awkward relationship with each other, rivals yet collaborators in a 13-strong ‘press club’ which acts to assert their joint rights, pressing as far as they can in getting what they want.  The club has a room in the police building, complete with sofas, demonstrating the symbiotic relationship between the two sides.  The reporters seem to spend most of their time in the room, and not much is heard about wearing out shoe leather chasing leads.  A current flashpoint between media and police is the issue of anonymous reporting, with the reporters demanding full disclosure of even small details and the police arguing for the right to reserve some elements of confidentiality.  The press see refusal to provide anything they ask for as offering the potential for police corruption, arguing it is their decision whether or not to publish.  Perhaps with good reason, they are permanently suspicious of the police.

They are currently demanding to know the name of a pregnant woman who had knocked down an old man, and this is being withheld by upper management ostensibly on the grounds that the shock of seeing her name in print might have an adverse effect on her pregnancy.  In reality it is because her father is connected to the police and there is a cover-up.  Mikami is torn between obeying his superiors and a desire to find a collaborative way to work with the press, and between his desire to keep on the good side of Criminal Investigations, to which he wants to return as soon as he can, and his professional desire to do a good job in his current role.  He decides the honourable course is to ‘open a window’ between police and press, but by following his conscience he is putting his job at risk.

While days at the office are hard going, his home life is blighted by the disappearance of his difficult teenage daughter, Ayumi, who had severe psychological problems caused by taking after his unattractive face rather than his wife Minako’s beautiful one.  As a result of Ayumi running away, Minako has become withdrawn, spending all her time hovering over the telephone in case Ayumi calls, and their domestic life is under pressure; the novel opens with them visiting a mortuary to see if a body is that of their daughter.  Mikami feels responsibility for being the cause of Ayumi’s features, and therefore Minako’s distress.  The police are looking for Ayumi, but this has created a debt for Minako, professional relations to a large extent running on obligations and manipulation.

As if things were not complicated enough, the National Police Agency’s Commissioner General had decided to make an official visit from Tokyo, ostensibly to drum up interest in a 14-year old case of kidnapping in which the victim, Shoko, seven years of age, was murdered despite payment of a ransom.  Codenamed Six Four, it is a case that will reach the statute of limitations in a few months, and although the case is still open, it now has few resources devoted to it.  An interview with Yokoyama concluding the volume explains that Six Four relates to the sixty-fourth year of the Shōwa era, which only lasted the first week of 1989 as the emperor Hirohito died on the 7 January in that year, ushering in the Heisei reign. It was the week-long Shōwa 64 when the murder occurred.

Mikami, who had been briefly involved in the original case (as had Minako who had been in the police before marriage), has to persuade the father, Amamiya, to go along with the plan for the Commissioner General to visit his home and give an interview, even though it is unlikely to lead to a breakthrough.  Mikami gets wind that the visit might be a pretext for Tokyo to take direct control of Prefecture D’s Criminal Investigations, and also discovers there had been a cover-up in Six Four that would bring discredit on the force generally and the team members in particular if it became public knowledge.

Amamiya is also aware of the investigation’s deficiencies and sees no reason to help now.  Anyway, the press threaten to boycott the event unless they are given the personal details of the pregnant driver.  It is up to Mikami to solve these problems so the press are mollified and the visit can proceed smoothly with maximum publicity, all the while empathising with his wife and nursing his own private grief.  Needing to convince Amamiya to change his mind and sensing there is more going on than anyone will admit to, Mikam goes back over Six Four.  Unfortunately he finds that wherever he turns, people in Criminal Investigations refuse to talk to him.

Then a new kidnapping occurs with eerie echoes of Six Four, and reporters converge from Tokyo to cover it.  Unfortunately it appears to become caught up in the battle between Criminal Investigations and Administrative Affairs.  The former are giving nothing away, which creates a storm with the press who are naturally demanding minute details of the case’s progress.  Caught in the middle, Mikami is forced to work out what is going on despite the conspiracy of silence so he can keep the press onside.  Through sheer tenacity he attaches himself to the investigating team and finally realises the truth of both this kidnapping and the earlier one.

Six Four is not an easy read even with the chart to sort out names.  Having to rely on Mikami as he stumbles down blind alleys and makes incorrect suppositions generates confusion.  Fortunately his lengthy meditation at the end, thinking through who did what and why, helpfully clarifies for the reader exactly what happened.  While still a detective at heart, he has come to appreciate the value of the media relations department and feels more positive about his role as press director.  They are not just desk jockeys under the thumb of the press club, as Criminal Investigations considers them, but a valuable part of the efforts to provide safety for those they serve.

Yokoyama highlights a rigidly hierarchical work culture alien to the western reader, one where policemen can be browbeaten by journalists and contemplate getting on their hands and knees to them to apologise; where shame and the desire to save face plays a major role in guiding actions within complex bureaucracies; and where much that is said is oblique rather than direct.  Interpersonal relations in Japan must be quite exhausting.

The Uninvited Guests, by Sadie Jones

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In a remote corner of northern England prior to the First World War, preparations are underway at Sterne for Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday celebrations.  The family is in dire straits financially and face the prospect of losing the house, self-absorbed Charlotte’s deceased husband having failed to provide adequately for her, Emerald, immature son Clovis and the neglected much younger Imogen, generally known as Smudge.  Charlotte’s second husband, Edward Swift, is not much liked by the children even though he seems to be the nicest one of the lot and is doing his best for them to continue to live in the big house, bought by Charlotte’s first husband, when he would be perfectly happy in, and able to fund, a smaller property.

He goes off to Manchester to see if he can arrange a loan, though without much hope.  Emerald’s old friend Patience and brother Ernest arrive for her birthday party, as well as successful, bluff, self-made businessman John, who has designs on both Emerald and Sterne, having already bought part of the estate.  Emerald does not reciprocate his feelings, though her mother would like to see the match succeed in order to save the house.

Meanwhile, unbeknown to them as they gather, a horrific railway crash has occurred on a branch line a few miles away, with many fatalities.  The battered survivors arrive at Sterne, expecting to be looked after until the Great Central Railway can make alternative arrangements for them.  With their own preoccupations, the residents and invited guests find the third-class passengers a nuisance and pay minimal attention to them as they try to carry on with the celebratory dinner.  Eventually the railway refugees parked in the morning room, some of whom are hurt, and mysteriously increasing in number, become restive at the lack of food and somewhere adequate to rest.  Meanwhile Smudge decides she wants to draw her pony, Lady, and rather than do it in situ in the stables, in what she refers to as the Great Undertaking brings the animal to her room upstairs.

As the weather deteriorates the evening does not go to plan.  Extravert Charlie Traversham-Beechers, also arrived after the crash, insinuates his way into the family and despite his unpleasant manner exerts a fascination over the dinner table when it becomes apparent he and Charlotte have some history together (the similarity in their names hints at shared characteristics, neither being likeable).  He proposes a drinking game of ‘hinds and hounds’ which involves describing or guessing negative traits about each other, the ‘hounds’ attempting to ‘cut out’ the hind, or victim, for the purpose of humiliation.  The family, as if hypnotised, goes along with Charlie’s scheme, and in the process truths are told that his fellow diners would prefer to remain hidden.  The game descends into cruelty and it would seem all bonds of friendship have been irretrievably broken.

Then midway through the novel events take a surprising turn.  The reader is already wondering about the uninvited guests, who are described in sketchy terms and are never individuated, but it becomes apparent they died in the crash, as did Charlie.  Amazingly, the horrible things said during the hinds and hounds game are forgotten as the task of the family, and their invited guests, is to make them comfortable so they can proceed into the afterlife.  Then there is the matter of getting Lady back downstairs and into the stable, requiring some impromptu remodelling of the house.  Both tasks achieved and the uninvited guests departed, everybody falls exhausted into bed, not necessarily on their own.

The following morning, the rain ceased and some sense of normality restored, Edward turns up with surprising news concerning a substantial bequest to Smudge from a previously unknown relative, with a name suspiciously echoing Charlie’s.  Charlotte had claimed that Charlie was Smudge’s father when she thought Charlie might do Smudge harm, though she later claimed it was not true, but this seems to be confirmation.  When Clovis at one point says ‘Smudge is quite mad by any normal reckoning,’ perhaps it is in the blood.  In the end, past scandals and cruel barbs are dismissed as if in a dream, the future is assured, even if it means appropriating Smudge’s money for the upkeep of the house, couples pair off and the ghosts are at peace, including Charlie who, despite the cruel element of his love/hate attitude towards Charlotte, has done the right thing by helping her financially (we assume).

The story may put the reader in mind of An Inspector Calls, with an unwelcome stranger telling a middle-class family some home truths; The Little Stranger, with its decaying house under threat; or Benighted, with travellers seeking shelter from bad weather in a large house.  Unfortunately such comparisons do not work to The Uninvited Guests’ advantage.  This is a peculiar kind of ghost story, with the revenants somehow brought in by Charlie’s force of will for unexplained reasons.  He appears normal for much of his time in the house, giving no indication he is dead, down to eating, drinking and smoking cigars.  Inexplicably he exerts a magnetic influence on the Torringtons and their friends, making them say appalling things about each other, and instead of ejecting him they tolerate his caddish behaviour.

Then somehow it seems he was able to arrange the legacy for Smudge in advance of his death, though it was chance that brought him to the vicinity of Sterne, and chance decreeing his demise.  While there is some hint the family is healed when they finally start to look after the crash victims, it is vague, and the novel’s happy ending too neat.  There is only one potential blight on this pleasant prospect, but presumably Edward will be left in ignorance of the full extent of the night’s happenings and his wife’s scandalous past. That, and as with any fiction set in the Edwardian period one has in mind the end of the idyll in the bloodbath of the Western Front.

One aspect of the novel puzzled me: the word ‘hoard’ was repeatedly used when from the context it should have been ‘horde’.  It is so obvious it seems unlikely author and editor both missed it, suggesting it was deliberate, so I was wondering why hoard should be used a number of times to characterise the uninvited guests.  The Torringtons want to see them on their way, at first for their own benefit, then for the weary travellers’, and have no desire to hoard them.

What Does the Fox Say?, by by Ylvis and Svein Nyhus

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Based on the viral YouTube music video of the same name, What Does the Fox Say, by the Norwegian comedy pair Ylvis, is a 2013 Christmas cash-in picture book for children from Simon and Schuster.  It contains the song’s words accompanied by illustrations of fox and friends in the woods.  The pictures, influenced by northern folk art, are entertainingly bonkers, though some may be a little strong for very small children.

Paradoxically, while we are told ‘There is one sound/That no one knows/What does the fox say?’, the authors seem to have a good idea – it’s gibberish – and insist on recounting it at length.  Perhaps it all makes more sense in Norwegian.  Unfortunately, while passively watching the video is one thing, reading it aloud to offspring will have parents going spare if repeatedly obliged to do the ‘Wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow! Joff-tchoff-tchoffo-tchoffo-tchoff!-type bits.

Why anyone would pay £6.99 for this version of a three-and-a-half–minute long novelty pop song when you can just stick the kids in front of a screen is a mystery: Svein Nyhus’s pictures do add value and are fun in their way, but not that much fun.  Really, if I had a sprog in the age range at which this spin-off is aimed, I should want to read them something with words they would be better off learning, rather than quantities of nonsense.

You Have Been Warned!, by Fougasse and McCullough

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You Have Been Warned!:  A Complete Guide to the Road, first published in 1935 and republished by the British Library in 2013, is a humorous guide to road use.  Some aspects of inter-war motoring may surprise the modern reader, such as the bureaucracy that already existed, making it not quite the laissez-faire activity we may assume it was in the ‘30s.  Less surprisingly it was definitely an overwhelmingly middle-class pastime as suggested by sections on touring, at home and abroad, rather than the more democratic pursuit it has become.

It is clear some things don’t change, and many of the situations will be familiar to today’s drivers even though the roads are far busier than they were 85 years ago (a time when there was only one car per 33 people as opposed to what feels like parity).  Car adverts exaggerated the merits of particular brands and salesmen were not to be entirely trusted.   Speeds in London in 1935 were no faster than they are now.  A series of ‘Famous last words’, said insouciantly before disaster strikes, are as relevant as they ever were.  A timeless opinion is that one always considers oneself to be an above-average driver, and whenever there is an incident it is always the other person’s stupid fault.

The author bemoans the increasing complexity of the car, when in the old days things were simpler.  There is so much more technology than when the horseless carriage first took to the roads, when you could tell if the engine was running hot because your feet burst into flames.  By 1935 the driver had to be aware of the oil gauge, choke, speedometer (an affectation if ever there was one), radiator temperature, ammeter, free wheel, rev counter, synchro-mesh, indicators, light switches, gears, throttle, hand brake etc.  There was so much on the dashboard to consider, the driver hardly had time to enjoy the view.

Much of the content is inevitably dated – readers will wonder what the choke did, apart from applying to the situation when the passenger was particularly vexed with the driver (or vice versa).  The ambiguities of the old-fashioned hand signals suggest that while in some ways societal progress seems to have reversed, electric indicators are on the whole a good thing.  The patronising attitude towards the foibles of lady drivers, and lady passengers for that matter, will not go down well with liberated women.

Donald McCullough’s text, illustrated with charming cartoons by ‘Fougasse’ (Cyril Bird) is very funny at times, with some great puns.  It does though contain serious points about road safety, lightly put, the first section suggesting intending road-users (not just motorists) should read the Highway Code, with much also on the mechanical soundness of the motor vehicle and adopting sensible attitudes when driving.  As 6,500 people were killed on British roads in 1935, clearly there was a great deal to be done in terms of public education not just for motorists but for cyclists, motor cyclists and pedestrians as well.

It was not all about the driver’s responsibilities though; officialdom needed to play its part.  One section presents a fantasy of what motoring could be like: road and tyre surfaces designed to complement each other to increase safety; signs in the road rather than distractingly at the side; a Corps to help all drivers (unlike the RAC and AA, which are not mentioned) and maintain good behaviour; habitually bad drivers losing not their licence for three months but the car; ‘reflector studs’ to assist night-time driving (the cat’s eye was just about to be introduced); and a tax on urban motoring to cure traffic jams.  I particularly like the last of these: let’s call it a congestion charge.

An Untouched House, by Willem Frederik Hermans

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Dutch writer Willem Frederik Hermans’s novella Het Behouden Huis was first published in 1951, when memories of the war would still have been raw in the Netherlands.  It is set in 1944 somewhere in Germany, with the Russians pushing westwards towards Berlin.  The unnamed protagonist is a Dutch partisan with the Red Army, a member of an international group of anti-Nazis treated with contempt by the regulars.  They are ill-disciplined and there are language issues, with the protagonist unable to understand his sergeant.

After being at war for four years, his ideological commitment is not particularly strong: at one point he tells a Spanish Civil War veteran (who has been fighting for eight years) that he is not a communist, a risky move when serving with the Red Army.  His story is one of repeated capture by the Germans and escape, so his present position is more happenstance than calculated.  Now, after all he has experienced, he is disengaged from reality, and nothing has meaning.

He is sent off alone on a vague mission to look for booby traps, more for spite than operational reasons, and he realises he is in a spa town with grand houses.  As he walks he feels like a ghost.  It is quiet, with all the residents fled and the Wehrmacht in retreat.  He comes across a large house untouched by the fighting.  Nobody is present, but clearly the occupants have only recently left.  Dirty, hungry and thirsty after months in the field, he takes a bath and has something to eat then, having put on clothes belonging to the owner, even though they are not a good fit, he falls asleep exhausted.

He is roused by Germans arriving.  He informs their officer he is the son of the owner (his accent must have been good enough to pass muster), which the Germans accept, and they billet themselves in the house.  He knows the deception will only work while the true owner is absent but despite the risks he decides to take a break from the war and stays in the house some months.  The house feels like a protective bubble, insulating him from the conflict, at least temporarily.

Then the owners do turn up, or perhaps they aren’t really but are only pretending as well, because the husband speaks German in an accent the partisan does not recognise, and the wife initially speaks a foreign language unknown to him.  He promptly shoots the husband and strangles the wife.  An old man who lives in the house, in a mysterious locked room which turns out to be full of fish tanks, also arrives, but his mind has gone and he is still enthusiastic for Hitler despite the Russians closing in.  Eventually the Soviet forces retake the town and trash the house, engaging in an orgy of wanton stupid destruction.  The partisan is back in uniform and rejoins his unit.

The story ends with the German colonel hanged with piano wire, the naked body of the female owner tied to him and the old man hanging alongside, on a plane tree the partisan had noted on arrival ‘had been pollarded so many times it now looked like a gallows with room for an entire family.’  For no good reason he lobs a hand grenade into the house, an act his comrades find amusing, then they march off  to ‘liberate’ some other German town.

There is an afterword by fellow Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom highlighting Hermans’ belief in a ‘sadistic universe’, explaining why for Nooteboom An Untouched House ‘ends in an apotheosis of random cruelty that is unparalleled in literature.’  As he describes Hermans’ archive as ‘thirty metres of coagulated anger’ it seems safe to say Hermans was not exactly the Dutch P G Wodehouse.

The novel’s concluding sentence, as the partisan looks back at the house, is: ‘It was like it had been putting on an act the whole time and was only now showing itself as it, in reality, had always been : a hollow, drafty cavern, rancid and rotting at its core.’  The building, pristine on the partisans’ arrival and wrecked on departure, is obviously a metaphor for the destruction wrought by the war and the state of Europe which had allowed it to happen.

There is no sense of the positives other writers have found in war: camaraderie, bravery, nobility in struggling for right against evil, sacrifice for a higher cause: in fact the bogus propaganda warmongers use to justify the barbarism they have unleashed.  The Russians may have claimed to be defending civilisation as they saw it, but they behave worse than the Germans, who have pretensions to be the bearers of ‘culture’.  The protagonist suffers more from his own side than the enemy’s – he has his teeth knocked out with a rifle butt, yet so inured is he that it barely registers.  Hermans focuses on the futility of war and the bestiality it generates, and is pessimistic about human nature.

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