Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Turncoat: Aaron Elkins

I have a shelf of books that I call the "three year" shelf. A book can sit on the shelf for three years and if I don't read it before then it goes (to the donation stack). I figure that for most of the books, I can give them the 50 page test before deciding to continue reading them or giving up on them. And in a few cases it has only taken a page or three to realize that I can pass the book on to someone else. This has been moderately successful.

Turncoat by Aaron Elkins was on this shelf, but as soon as I read a couple of pages from the book, I knew I was going to keep reading.  The story, the premise, and the writing grabbed me immediately. It is set in November 1963 and begins on the day John F. Kennedy died.

The book begins with this sentence:
"For everybody else in America it was the day JFK was killed in Dallas. For me it would always be the day Lily's father turned up on our doorstep."

The narrator is Peter Simon, currently a professor of history at Brooklyn college, formerly a waist gunner in a B-17 towards the end of World War II. Lily is his wife of 17 years, a counselor in a local high school. The unusual thing about his father-in-law turning up on his doorstep is that Peter had always thought that he had died during the war. Thus, Lily's father's sudden appearance and her refusal to talk to her father confuses him. Days later her father is dead, his savagely beaten body found in southern Brooklyn.

Both Peter and Lily have roots in France. Peter was born there but moved to the US at a young age with his parents. Lily lived in France until 1945, when she was 17 and met Peter in London towards the end of the war. They married and moved to the US. So when Lily disappears after the discovery of her father's body, Peter starts the search for her in Europe, first in Spain where her father had been living, then moving on to France and the town where Lily grew up.

For me the joy of reading this book was taking Peter's journey of discovery with him, thus I don't want to reveal more of the plot. I will say that the focus is on the French who collaborated with the Germans in World War II and the lasting effects that the German occupation had in France after the war.

This is a suspenseful story, cleverly told, and a page turner. New pieces of information about Lily and her father and their past are gradually revealed, in a realistic way. Peter Simon is resourceful and determined, although he finds it difficult to move outside of his comfort zone while hunting down the truth and his wife.

The story is very believable, partly because Peter knows enough French to get along well in France. We get to know him very well, and there are some great secondary characters. Two policemen are favorites of mine, one in New York (Detective Sergeant Ivan Kovalski of the 61st Precinct), one in Veaudry, France (Alphonse Juneaux of the Police Nationale's Provincial Department of Criminal Investigation).

In 2014 I read Loot (my review here), another book by Aaron Elkins about events related to World War II and its aftermath. That one is on a different subject, the looting of art treasures during the war. Elkins is better known for his series about Gideon Oliver, a forensic anthropologist whose nickname is "The Skeleton Detective".

 -----------------------------

Publisher:  William Morrow, 2002.
Length:     298 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     New York, Spain, France
Genre:      Historical mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy.


14 comments:

  1. As I was reading your review, I was thinking that Aaron Elkins wrote a series as I recalled. And then you told about it. I've not read any of his books, but I like how this one sounds. You do share about the most interesting books, Tracy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Kay. I have only read a couple of the Gideon Oliver books, but reading this one has encouraged me to read more of them. The fourth book in that series, Old Bones, won the Edgar for Best Novel.

      Delete
  2. I have only read, and enjoyed, the Oliver books, and I'm way behind on them. This sounds like a good one.

    I met Elkins at my very first mystery convention, Left Coast Crime held in Anaheim, CA in 1994. He was genial, and kind to a "new" mystery fan (though of course I'd been reading mysteries for decades, I was new to fandom and conventions). I bought some of his books then and have kept it up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is a good one, Rick. Elkins seems like a nice person from what I read of him, and you have confirmed that. I plan to get back to reading some of the Gideon Oliver books.

      Delete
  3. I'm very glad you liked this one,Tracy. I like Elkins' work very much - both Loot and his Oliver series. He has an effective way of inviting the reader into the story, and the research is done well, so the contexts for his stories feel authentic, at least to me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I liked Loot a lot too, Margot, but this one was even better in my opinion.

      Delete
  4. Have read a number of his series but was not aware of this one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I found this one at a book sale and had not heard of it before either, Patti. I would like to try two of his other series ... the Chris Norgren series and the Alix London series.

      Delete
  5. I read a couple of his Gideon Oliver series years ago, Tracy, and recall I liked them a lot. Somehow, tho, I've let Elkins slip my mind, until now. Turncoat sounds like one I would enjoy. I shall have to get back to his work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My son read a few more of the Gideon Oliver series than I did, Matt, and enjoyed them. So we have several books in the series around here. (And many of them have skeletons on the cover, so I have some copies just for that reason.) So I have a few more to try.

      Delete
  6. I don't think I have a shelf big enough for the 3 year test! Glad you enjoyed this one, but I don't feel tempted to try him myself - which is a relief.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My shelf is fairly short, Col, but when I move one out then I replace it with a new one, so it actually has been beneficial.

      Delete
  7. The three year shelf is a great idea, Tracy. I might try that myself.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I adapted my shelf idea from another blogger, Christine. He had a five year shelf with about 99 books on it (if memory serves). My shelf is much smaller, and I have had it about a year and am just now getting to moving books off of it one way or another. And putting new ones in their place.

      Delete