From the Book: 1944. The Allies battle through Nazi-Occupied France, only the Red Ball Express - a massive convoy of trucks that serves as a fragile lifeline to the expanding front - supplies this immense effort.
Against this hellish backdrop the lives of two men are changed for ever.
LIBERATION ROAD is billed as a novel of World War II, but it's really a story of two men. Rabbi Ben Kahn is a Chaplain with the American Army in France - his personal crusade is to find out what happened to his son - a missing fighter pilot. Joe Amos is a black truck driver on the Red Ball, supplying the military machine, somehow not quite equal to those he is fighting with. Whilst Joe and Ben, in separate parts of the same theatre for most of the story, struggle with their own personal demons, an American man makes his fortune in the Black Market in Paris. Is this mysterious Chien Blanc Ben's missing son?
The concentration of LIBERATION ROAD is on Joe and Ben's individual wars. There's a very intimate, personal feeling to their stories which makes this the sort of book that the characters are absolutely central to. There's little by way of coverage of the full horror of the Second World War to the local people, or any acknowledgment of the rest of the Allies fighting. There are some small cameo's by two local French people in Joe's story - a romantic attachment in particular which could be seen as poignant on the face of it, but as it ends, there's little opportunity to understand what war has done to those locals trying to simply survive in such appalling circumstances. Whilst Joe and Ben struggle with the war that goes on around them - how to cope with the divide between white soldiers and black truck drivers; how to comfort the badly wounded and the dying; in Paris, Chien Blanc ruthlessly makes his money and lives as high a life as you possibly could under an occupation. The reader knows he is an American, but who is he really?
Ben and Joe slowly move towards each other (without knowing it), until a climax point of the book where the advance of the American Army is temporarily interrupted with profound results for both men. Ultimately, with LIBERATION ROAD the reader has to connect completely with Ben and Joe, be involved in their stories, their war; care whether Ben can ever find the truth about his son; whether Joe stays alive and gets home to his family; how their individual experience will affect both men for the rest of their lives.
THE ASSASSIN'S GALLERY - David L Robbins
In March, 1945 American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt was at his retreat at Warm Springs resting before an anticipated appearance at the founding conference of the United Nations. He had become increasingly frail and ill into his 4th term as President, but this had been kept from the public, so his death, from a cerebral haemorrhage, was a shock for the nation. When he died he was sitting for a portrait painting by the artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff, the painting now a famous work known as the Unfinished Portrait of FDR. Amongst others present at Warm Springs was Lucy Mercer, his former mistress and long time close personal friend. The circumstances, location and people present at Roosevelt's death are all a matter of fact. THE ASSASSINS GALLERY simply proposes that his death was not really from natural causes and he was the victim of a well covered up assassination?
THE ASSASSINS GALLERY opens with a wetsuit clad swimmer stepping from a cold Atlantic Ocean on New Year's eve. Cool, efficient, and very experienced, this assassin will despatch anybody who interferes with the mission. The only clue to their even being in the country is the inadvertent leaving of an unusual and ancient knife at the site of a murder that night. The connection is only picked up by chance and Professor Mikhal Lemmeck, an expert on the history and weaponry of Assassins and his ex-student Nabbit, now a Secret Service Agent, need to work out where she is, who she is here to kill, and that she really exists. Yes, she, the other twist in THE ASSASSINS GALLERY is that the Assassin is a woman, using the name Judith. In end of War America, where so much of the workforce and local populace is female, so many men being away at the war.
THE ASSASSINS GALLERY mixes up the facts around FDR, America and American society in the dying days of WWII with the story of Judith. Judith is a Persian Muslim woman, an experienced assassin, she alone knows who she is working for, and who she is here to kill, as well as knowing she has a limited time in which to get to FDR. The story of how she goes about infiltrating Government circles is fascinating and very clever. Passing herself off as a Creole-Black woman from New Orleans she is able to move backwards and forwards in white and black circles seamlessly, finally choosing to work as a domestic in the homes of people in government circles to move her way gradually closer to FDR.
Despite some niggling concerns about the convenience of having a Muslim Assassin as it's central character, THE ASSASSINS GALLERY is saved from the possibility of a villain of convenience. The motivation for the assassination is not revealed until the end, and Judith herself, is not a stereotype. She's ruthless, able, quick, unapologetic but not without human compassion and feeling. She also makes no bones about the fact that she is an assassin - it's what she does. The book moves along at a clipping pace, with the tension being double focused. Firstly the increasing pressure on Judith to get into a position where she can kill FDR, in a very closed circle, with the complication of FDR's failing health making him less accessible. On the other hand Lemmeck and Nabbit struggle to work out how to get a lead on their suspected assassin, the intended victim, the method - anything that will give them a hint where to go next.
THE ASSASSINS GALLERY has all the elements of a good thriller, it's entertaining, engaging, it has enough things that are believable and save you from having to suspend your disbelief too far. Working the premise into a known historical situation, would normally turn me off a bit, but in this case it worked really really well. Possibly this is because the only playing with the reader's understanding of the truth of history is in the final event, the death of FDR. Everything in the lead up fits into the known society at the time so effortlessly that just for a few seconds, you do wonder...