Jack’s Books: Their Finest Hour

Once upon a time, a great nation chose as its leader, in a moment of peril, a very old man.

He’d been around politics for as long as anyone could remember, holding various posts, some successfully, some ineptly.  For a time, forgotten.

Easy to caricature and easy to underestimate. His ascension to his nation’s highest elected post came well past the point anyone thought he’d ever achieve it, and many thought it was the worst thing that could befall the country, at the worst possible moment.

Instead, he saved Western Civilization. W.C. saved W.C.

Winston Churchill.

His rise and early leadership during the darkest days of WW2 are the subject of Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and The Vile (2020). Larson, who’s written about various historical periods with the flair of a novelist, always carving out a small enough piece of the story to zero-in on fascinating, rich detail, takes on Churchill, everyday life in London, and the geopolitical dance of trying to enlist help from a sympathetic American president and people, before it’s too late and the century falls to Hitler.

As many books as I’ve plowed through on the war (it being my favorite historical subject), I learned from Larson. You will tear through the pages.

Also in the last few weeks:

“The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and The Fall of Rome” by Christopher Kelly (2008) Painstakingly detailed, and thus sometimes hard to read, this is an enthusiastic telling of the fear and legend of a warrior who beat powerful empires, armies and odds, only to have his name become synonymous with idiot brutality. Kelly separates, when appropriate, the man from the myth.

“Trevayne” by Robert Ludlum (1973) One of the legend’s earliest novels, originally published under a different pen name because his publisher thought he was turning out too many books too quickly. Later, he couldn’t write them fast enough for the bestseller charts. But “Trevayne” is much more than just a Ludlum thriller. Although half-a-century old, this book deals with what we now call “deep state” issues, and frighteningly questions who, and what, rules our rulers. A stubborn businessman is tapped to head an independent commission to probe Pentagon spending, but winds up getting much closer to the truth than his employers wanted.

“3 Witnesses” by Rex Stout (1956) A collection of three 1954-55 magazine novellas featuring Stout’s legendary detective Nero Wolfe, and his trusty aide-de-camp, Archie Goodwin.  My favorite is “Die Like A Dog”, in which Archie acquires a friendly black Lab in the course of a case. Despite the title, don’t worry about the dog.

“Locked On” by Tom Clancy (2011) Personally, I thought the Clancy “Jack Ryan” series was better before he made his young hero the President. In this novel, Ryan is running to get the presidency back from his scurrilous successor, while Jack Ryan Jr. goes through his baptism of fire in the field for a quasi-official, off the books spy agency. At issue: an insane Iranian plot to start a nuclear war.

“Rough Weather” by Robert Parker (2008) The “Spenser” mysteries are some of the most formulaic out there. Critics pan them as boxed cake mix. Fine, but who doesn’t like cake? You always savor the action, and every crumb of witty repartee, right down to licking the mixing bowl. In this one, Spenser is hired by a wealthy woman to watch over her daughter’s high-society wedding. When Spenser’s old foe, the “Grey Man” disrupts the nupts and kidnaps the bride, it’s clear that no one in this party is (or was) what they appeared. And, no one really wants Spenser to solve the thing, but solve it he must.

“Corsican Honor” by William Heffernan (1992) He’s a superb novelist, and a personal favorite, who doesn’t disappoint here in a story about the Cold War and the Corsican mafia, material previously dealt with in “The Corsican”. If I had a bone to pick here, it would be frequent and over-long flashback chapters. Maybe this should be two novels? Heffernan is a master at plot, vivid characters and richly-described settings, but this felt like a little bit of a struggle sometimes.

“Breakdown” by Jonathan Kellerman (2016) Stout has Wolfe and company, Parker has Spenser, Susan and Hawk, and Kellerman has Dr. Alex Delaware and his best friend, LAPD Detective Milo Sturgis. Years earlier, Delaware evaluated the young son of a troubled actress, and then when she turns up dead under shady circumstances, no one seems to know what became of her little boy. Delaware, as chivalrous as Spenser in his own way, is singularly determined to find out what became of young Ovid.

As always, if you try one of these, please share your thoughts. Or share a book recommendation: [email protected]

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