Tuesday, April 14, 2015

On Desperate Ground

ON DESPERATE GROUND is the story of men and women caught up in the death throes of Nazi Germany, struggling to maintain those things precious to them-life, an end to killing, and even sanity itself. Colonel Johann Faust has lost everyone he ever loved and feels he is going inexorably insane. He hears the haunting voice of his dead fiancée and the demons that roar through his mind as he perfects a plan to save Nazi Germany from defeat and insure a greater and deadlier new world war. Captain Dieter Neukirk, once a protégé of Faust's, is more concerned with saving the lives of his remaining men than in sacrificing them in a fanatical last stand. Meanwhile, Elsa Klein, Dieter's lover and the chief social worker at a Berlin hospital, is engaged in her own dangerous work, providing medical care and identity papers to hidden Jews in the city. American Captain Mack Mackenzie, pulled from a military hospital before his wounds are healed, is assigned to investigate reports of a secret Nazi operation. Wanting only to make it home alive, Mack finds himself in a life and death struggle with unlikely allies and a ferociously determined opponent. Americans and Germans alike are drawn to a hilltop in the remote German countryside, where they find themselves between powerful armies and forced into a terrible decision that could end one war or begin a new one.

A tight-paced adventure, a multi-layered set of events, where...private rivalries are contained within the larger context of a 1945 large-scale German operation...the beat, the quick tempo never lets the reader down...this is a very good novel, and great reading entertainment. - Ben Pastor, author of THE WATER THIEF, LUMEN, and other novels

If you take as much delight in James Benn's Billy Boyle series as I do, you're going to adore this, his first standalone...if you're unfamiliar with Billy and his adventures, I suggest you get cracking...Benn is an author who's unbeatable when it comes to bringing WWII alive. 
-Leighton Cage, author of the Chief Inspector Mario Silva Series. 

 Author James Benn has become highly regarded for his Billy Boyle WW2 novels. Billy, a reluctant combatant who has the patronage of his aunt's husband (his aunt's maiden name is Doud, so you may be able to guess who the uncle is!) is the subject of five or six novels, with a new one issued yearly. All are very good and I'm looking forward to his newest novel, to be published in September. But James Benn has surprised his fans with a couple of new books - issued in paperback. The first one I've read is "On Desperate Ground", and is, in every way, an equal to his Billy Boyle series.

The main American character of "Desperate" is Captain "Mack" Mackenzie, another Irish-American smart-aleck, who also enjoys Ike's patronage. He's sent off to do "odd jobs" for the general and when the book opens, Mack is recovering in a British nursing home from minor physical injuries and more serious mental ones. It's early January, 1945, and the Allies have finally turned back the Germans in the Ardennes at the Battle of the Bulge. (Interesting fact that I learned from both this book and another one I recently read was that the allies were truly caught off-guard by the German advance in the Ardennes because the German commanders had not used radio messaging that had previously been picked up and decoded by the British/Americans, using the Enigma machines at Bletchley Park. Instead, the Germans relied on radio silence and talking by phone when planning the attack.) Allied armies are racing toward Germany from both the west - the Americans and Brits - and from the east - the Soviets. Ike and his aides think something's happening in Germany, but don't quite know what it is. He sends Mack to shadow one American army group to see if he can pick up any stray intel.

But Benn's story doesn't neglect the German side; in fact, the Germans in the last days of the Reich are the pivotal characters. One long-time army officer, Johann Faust, has gone mad from losing his family and fiance, murdered by the invading Russians in their east-Prussian homes. He concocts a plan - not a totally bad one - which involves pitting the invading Soviets against the invading western allies and turning their guns towards each other. The plot involves clothing some German and Russian-defector troops in American uniforms and others in Soviet uniforms and watching the ensuing "hi-jinks" as both sides think they've been betrayed. Faust has gathered some aides, with whom he's fought since the war began in 1939. There's a back story of how Johann Faust knew Mack Mackenzie from early in the war, so the enmity is already established between the two.

James Benn writes with a sure footing about the last six months of WW2, from both the German and Allied perspectives. There are no caricatures in the characters he brings to the reader in a very good - if slightly far-fetched - plot. I do think the book will interest WW2 affianados more than the average Benn-written Billy Boyle readers. There's more "history" in this book, more military tactics and political maneuvering than in most works of fiction. It's a great read for the right reader - who actually might be most of James Benn's "Billy Boyle" fans.

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