70 Years After: The Great Escape

There was a great ceremony in Zagan, Poland this week, to mark the 70th anniversary of the escape at Stalag Luft III, the German prisoner of war camp popularized in the 1963 film The Great Escape, which starred Steve McQueen, James Garner, Sir Richard Attenborough and James Coburn, as well as the great Scottish actor Angus Lennie as Sir Archibald Ives, who keeps McQueen company in “The Cooler.” At the ceremony on Monday, members of the Royal Air Force carried pictures of the original prisoners. One speaker properly said, “They were not prisoners of war. They were prisoners at war.”

50 soldiers set out from the site of Stalag Luft III to a war cemetery to honor the 70th anniversary of The Great Escape.

50 soldiers set out from the site of Stalag Luft III to a war cemetery to honor the 70th anniversary of The Great Escape.

Strangely enough, I have some personal experience with these men. In May of 2004, I was living on the South Bank in London. That morning, we heard on the radio that six former prisoners at the camp were going to reunite for a private event at the Imperial War Museum that afternoon. Using nothing more than a business card that identified me as a writer, I talked my way into the event, which was incredible. I got to meet two of the surviving escapees, squadron leader Bertram “Jimmy” James and flight lieutenant Sydney Dowse, both of whom since passed away in 2008.

It was also thrilling for me that several actors from the film adaptation were there as well, including John Leyton, George Mikell, Tom Adams and Angus Lennie. I got to spend a good half-hour with Angus talking about the making of the film, the London stage, and working with actors like Alec Guinness. “People in my business have great strength,” he said. “I used to go and see the films and think I could do that. How could I do that? I was just a little boy who wanted to sing and dance. I think it was determination, too. At the age of 16, I was in London performing. If you did that today, you’d end up sleeping on the Strand.”

James Garner and the late Donald Pleasance in a publicity still from The Great Escape (1963).

James Garner and the late Donald Pleasance in a publicity still from The Great Escape (1963).

I also spoke briefly with Tim Carroll, author of The Great Escape From Stalag Luft III about the connections between the film and the real-life events of the escape. “There’s a moment in the film that captures the experience for me, and it’s the moment just as Donald Pleasance, playing the forger, is killed by the Germans,” he said. “He says to James Garner, ‘Thanks for saving me.’ That’s what these men cared about.”

In honor of the anniversary, I thought it was worth reprinting my original story. Enjoy.

THE GREAT ESCAPERS REUNITE IN LONDON (2004)

Trolley Escape

Jimmy James and Sydney Dowse with a recreation of one of the escape trolleys used to flee from Stalag Luft III.

“For you, the war is over,” said Nazis to Allied aircrew that were shot down over Europe in World War II and captured. That was not good enough for the prisoners of Stalag Luft III, a POW camp 100 miles southeast of Berlin run by the Luftwaffe. Dozens of prisoners spent eleven months excavating three escape tunnels, “Tom, Dick and Harry,” with bed boards and stolen materials while others forged fake identification and scrapped together civilian clothing.

The March 24, 1944 escape of 76 prisoners is one of the best-known episodes of World War II and was fictionalized in the 1963 film, “The Great Escape.” The 60th anniversary of the escape was marked by a reunion on March 16 at the Imperial War Museum in London. Attending the event were two escapees who made it out of the tunnel, Squadron Leader Bertram “Jimmy” James, 89, and Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse, 84. Fourteen other veterans attending included Flight Lieutenant Alex Cassie, a skilled artist who played a crucial role as a forger of documents and Flight Lieutenant Ken Rees, who was caught in the tunnel when the Germans discovered it and inspired Steve McQueen’s role in the film as “The Cooler King.”

The unprecedented escape was a major disgrace for the Nazis and led to tragedy for many of the escapees. Out of the 76 men who left the tunnel, only three made it to safety and 50 of the recaptured prisoners were murdered by the Gestapo on Hitler’s direct orders.

Read more about The Great Escape after the jump.

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The Things We Carried

As mentioned earlier, I’ve been on vacation in Florida. Someone asked not too long ago if I get to read much for pleasure. The answer is “not enough,” as most writers will probably tell you. But that’s what vacation is for, right? This is more for personal history, but this is what one writer takes on vacation.

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle

I’The Gutsve been following Doyle’s work for almost a quarter-century now and I never get tired of his work. I’m particularly fond of The Last Roundup series, which follows the long arc of Henry Smart, an IRA assassin whose life hopscotches through some of the most fascinating periods of the twentieth century. But like many fans, I’m most pleased by the scathing and yet somehow good-natured humor of the Barrytown trilogy, a signed copy of which sits here in front of me. Many people are familiar with The Commitments via the 1991 Alan Parker film, while The Snapper puts the focus on Jimmy Rabbitte’s sister Sharon and The Van on Jimmy’s ‘Da.’

One of the great joys of the first novel was Jimmy Rabbitte’s undying love of music, accompanied by his unceasing criticism of bands that publicly loathed and sometimes secretly liked. It’s not seen in the film, but the end of the novel actually finds Jimmy forming a new group, The Brassers, a kind of punk/country band with Mikah Wallace, Outspan Foster and Derek Scully. I was surprised a few years ago to find a great little short story, “The Deportees,” which found the ever-hustling Jimmy forming a band that exclusively featured immigrants.

This all brings us to The Guts, which is a full-on sequel that catches fans up on the adventures of Jimmy Rabbitte. I was expecting a purely comic novel – and the book is funny as hell, mind you – but Doyle really brought his A-game to the writing as well. The economy of Doyle’s dialogue is devastating. As the book begins, Jimmy and his Da are in the pub, talking about Facebook while Jimmy tries to deliver some bad news.

—Grand. Are yeh havin’ another?
—No, said Jimmy. —I’m drivin’.
—Fair enough.
—I have cancer.
—Good man.
—I’m bein’ serious, Da.
—I know.

It’s a terrific novel that takes one of the author’s most popular characters and instead of catering to a fan base, treats the character as if he’s lived, just like all of the rest of us, in real time. The Celtic Tiger has treated Jimmy well, letting him run a business resurrecting one-hit wonders for we nostalgic old-timers, but he’s also faced with the diagnosis of bowel cancer, the prospect of aging disgracefully, all while managing his wife, his numerous kids, his schemes, and the trickiness of trying to text the right girl since he’s sleeping with Imelda Quirke, one of the backup singers from The Commitments. Jimmy also reunites with guitarist Liam “Outspan” Foster, whom he meets in the clinic where it turns out Outspan is being treated for lung cancer. There’s an underlying plot having to do with the concoction of a fake folk song from the 1920s, complete with a fake Hungarian band led by Jimmy’s son Marvin. But the joy is in revisiting Jimmy’s marvelous, witty, snarky voice and rooting for him to win even when the world seems impossible.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

The MartianLook, it’s almost unheard of for me to take a debut novel on vacation. If I do bring something, it’s likely to be an adventure novel, or science fiction, or more likely an entry in a series or a novel I’ve set aside to read for pleasure. But I’ve heard a few things about this hard-science adventure novel and thought I would give it a try. It was also half-price as an e-book, which made it both affordable and transportable. It’s the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on a manned mission to Mars who is accidentally abandoned by his crew-mates during a dust storm. I have to admit that part of what grabbed me was Watney’s opening log: “I’m pretty much F***ed. That’s my considered opinion. F***ed.”

What makes this novel great (in the sense that it’s wildly entertaining, rather than important in the grand scheme of things) is that Watney is a riot of a character, an everyman who is as disgusted with his choice in leftover music (no more disco!) as he is terrified about his situation. It’s also the fact that Weir, a software engineer, science buff and obviously a giant geek, has really done his homework to figure out how Mark Watney could conceivably and realistically survive a year and a half on Mars until he can be rescued by the next scheduled mission. The author was also smart to set it during the third Mars mission, when the public back on Earth have forgotten how amazingly cool the whole enterprise is. (Did I mention I read this book the same week that I visited the Kennedy Space Center?) It’s easy to cheer for a fighting botanist who grows his own potatoes, tricks out his moon buggy, catches up on The Dukes of Hazzard and survives against all odds.

Anyway, well done to Andy Weir for a terrific debut. Note to self to revisit this as a book on tape during the next long drive.

Honorable Mention

You by Austin Grossman

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu

The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel

The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort

Pigeonholed

I think about genre a lot. I don’t mean in the sense that I’m trying to come to some kind of deeper understanding of a swath of literature, but in the sense that I still don’t understand it after all this time. I think it came from one of my first interviews with the Scottish novelist Ian Rankin. I don’t think it made the original feature, but he talked about discovering crime fiction in the first place.

“I started reading crime fiction the final year of my studies instead of reading about Muriel Spark,” he said. “I was reading Chandler and Hammett and Ruth Rendell and P.D. James.  Immediately, I liked the strong sense of place that you get in crime fiction, the strong central character, the traditional storytelling with that strong sense of a beginning, a middle and an end.  I like the games that you can play in a crime novel.  I found that everything I want to say about the world I can say quite nicely in the crime genre, so why do anything else? They were also the kinds of books that my Dad read.  I thought, do I want to spend seven years at university writing books that are only read by people at university, like James Joyce’s Ulysses or do I want to write the kind of books my Dad would read?  It was a pretty simple answer.”

The next few features are a good example of the width and depth of a specific genre. Painted in broad strokes, all of these novels can comfortably be pitched into the mystery section or an airport bookstore and do quite well, but they’re all so very different that it’s easy to see how badly “genre” can be characterized sometimes.

The AccidentI suppose the most recent feature I’ve published is this interview with novelist Chris Pavone about his new novel The Accident. Pavone, of course, is the former cookbook editor who hit it big with The Ex-Pats, his chronicle of expatriate life that accidentally turned into a huge thriller. The Accident is another stand-alone novel set in the interconnected world of Pavone’s novels, with curious cameos from players from The Ex-Pats. As it often goes, I was surprised to learn that Pavone didn’t even know that he was writing a thriller when he set about writing his first novel. For having such a clear, propulsive voice, the author has very little knowledge or expertise in crime fiction.

“Because I don’t immerse myself in crime novels, I wasn’t following any particular formula, ” he explained. “The Ex-Pats is more influenced by good, caper-y movies than it is by crime novels. There’s something about the sort of set piece of a tight cast of characters who are all lying to one another about almost everything that felt to me a little more like a play or a movie than a book. Very often, books have far wider-ranging action and characters than the Ex-Pats did. I did have in mind – it was very cinematic to me. I was always trying to establish a visual for each sequence and have the action be very dialogue-driven without focusing on chases or violence, but just people lying to each other. I don’t read a lot of books about that kind of duplicity.”

More on guns, dames and the disappeared after the jump. Continue reading

What Might Have Been

It’s no secret that I love alternative histories, not to mention the secret histories of the world, so these next two interviews feel like kindred spirits to me.

DominionFirst up, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing C.J. Sansom, the distinguished Scottish novelist and iconoclast behind the Matthew Shardlake historical thrillers and the very fine spy novel Winter in Madrid. I feel very lucky to have caught him when I did, because his new novel Dominion is spectacular. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either. I had to laugh when the interview was published to see no less than Stephen King broadcast, “That book DOMINION is terrific. And no, this isn’t one of those publisher-sponsored blurbs. I just fell in love with it. Nice and long, too.”

As stated, it’s an alternative history of World War II, but it’s a damned thoughtful one, let me tell you. Sansom pulled off a great trick, as we discuss in “Inventing a New History,” in that he only changed a single fact: instead of the ferocious Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister, the so-called “architect of appeasement,” Lord Halifax, takes the role. By the time we catch up to the “present” in 1952, Great Britain is under German occupation and America has retreated under the cover of isolationism. It’s a great spy novel but it’s also truly creepy at times, throwing out seemingly random facts like the fact that the Holocaust has come and gone, with only whispers that it ever happened at all. I’m told that BBC radio adapted it as a miniseries, so there’s a note to self to go check that out, too.

You can get the most interesting comments in the interview at Kirkus, but I thought it was worth sharing a few conversations that didn’t make it into the feature. It was a bit too much to go into there, but Mr. Sansom definitely had an agenda in writing Dominion.

The author, a trained historian himself, managed to drum up a bit of controversy when the book was released. The minor kerfuffle was over his portrayal of Enoch Powell, which you can read about in the British Press. The underlying theme of the novel, however, is warning against the dangers of nationalism. It’s an issue that Sansom cares about deeply, as it falls right in line with his passionate opposition to the Scottish vote on independence later this year. Here’s what he had to say about the dangers inherent in national idealism.

“The short answer is: look at modern European history,” he explained. “The first danger is the extent to which socially liberally or socially conservative views on issues of personal freedom prevail. Those are the things that most people argue about when they argue about politics. About only a week or two ago, Nichola Sturgeon, who is the deputy leader of the Scottish National Party, said that independence transcends conventional politics. Well, I think it’s very bad to transcend conventional politics, because you’re saying other issues don’t matter; it’s just nationality that matters. I think that’s wrong. It’s also completely unrealistic and myth-making because the issues that one faces in daily life are ones of political economy. Dreams of nationality don’t fill people’s stomachs. It’s also dangerous because nationalism by definition defines itself against an an enemy of ‘other’ There always has to be an enemy. That’s dangerous.”

“If you say nationalism trumps other issues, it’s very easy to stomp down the road to authoritarianism,” he continued. “I’m not saying it always happens, but there is always a risk. Nationalists also wind up anthropomorphizing the nation as just a collection of people who lived in the same place under the same political rule for a few hundred years. Nationalism gives the state a sort of human personality. The national destiny, the national dream, the national feeling. To me, that’s all just so much rubbish.”

Half WorldBack on this side of the pond, I connected with novelist Scott O’Connor about his eerie new novel Half World. It’s about one of the great secret histories of America, delving not only into a series of desperately dark personal journeys but into the connective tissue of American conspiracies, the threads that lead directly from Menlo Park to Dealey Plaza to Jonestown, Abu Gharib and beyond. In my feature “Thought Control” at Kirkus Reviews, we delved into the history of Project MKUltra, the CIA’s decades-long experiment in bioengineering behavior through the use of LSD, behavioral modifications, hypnosis, rape and torture.

“What we know is true is a very small percentage compared to the theories out there about the program,” O’Connor explained. “A quick Google search will implicate MK Ultra in just about any act of public violence in the past 50 years. The records were only destroyed because the agnecy knew that public hearings were coming. The political climate was changing because of Watergate and Vietnam and they knew they were going to be called to be counted. In the mid-70s, there were a couple of hearings in which they disclosed assassination attempts and coups. It was pretty shocking, especially at the time. The idea that this was the project that they destroyed records over is terrifying. I mean, they didn’t destroy the records about trying to kill Castro, which was a pretty shocking revelation in 1975, but this had to be buried. It really makes you wonder how bad it got. As a novelist, you now have something to write about because it gives you a place to fill in the gaps and imagine what might have happened there.”

Sleep tight.

Altered States

I am returned from a well-deserved vacation in the wilds of Florida, so I suppose it’s probably time for me to do the round-up of stories from the past couple of months.

DrewSpeaking of Florida, I was happy to start the year by speaking with promising young novelist Drew Perry about his comedic novel Kids These Days. I really enjoyed his first novel, This Is Just Exactly Like You, about a man trying to keep his family together and a rather poignant portrayal of the challenges of raising an autistic child. In “A Life Gone Sideways,” at Kirkus Reviews, we talked about the bizarre garishness of the Sunshine State (which I found very much intact during my own travels), not to mention the bizarre nature of being a parent. Not having any myself, I was surprised to find that Drew was not in fact an evangelist for parenthood.

“I might even be the opposite,” he admitted.”We don’t talk so much about how hard it is to have kids. I think there is this ‘Have Kids! The Musical!’ vibe out there sometimes. I think we should be more open about what a disaster it can be. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t also admit that I can be one of those a-hole dads standing around the grill saying it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” We also found that we can definitely relate around a general feeling of nervousness, not to mention that enduring sense of humor about the world’s weirdness.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as anxiety proper, but I’m definitely made nervous by a world in which so much hard can befall us with absolutely no warning,” he explained. “But if I didn’t find the strangeness of the world funny, I’d be doomed. I think ‘coping mechanism’ is too easy a way to describe it but I delight in the strangeness of things. I have a buddy who calls up and leaves messages like, ‘Hey, I just wanted to call and let you know that I passed a guy out on Battleground Avenue beating a stop sign with a chain and I thought that would be the sort of thing you would like.’ It’s those little things that I hold onto in order to stitch the world back together.”