Disclaimer: The Crooked Cross is published by Quaestor2000 who have also published my novel Paths of Exile, although I don't think that has influenced my opinion.
Edition reviewed: Quaestor2000, 2009, ISBN 978-1-906836-13-9. 191 pages.
Set in Munich in 1933, The Crooked Cross tells the story of a disparate group of people attempting to resist Hitler's rise to power in Germany. Senior figures in the Nazi hierarchy, such as Heydrich, Hess and of course Hitler himself, appear as secondary characters. Two of the main characters, the lawyer Glaser and the police superintendent Forster, are historical figures about whom little detail is known. The other main characters are fictional.
Adolf Hitler has just become Chancellor of Germany, and his National Socialist (Nazi) party is steadily increasing its control over all aspects of life. Disagreement is already becoming dangerous, liable to result in punishment beatings, destruction or appropriation of property, imprisonment without trial, or worse. Gerhard Glaser, a lawyer and Public Prosecutor, views the ever-increasing power of the party with concern. Two years previously his attempt to investigate the death of Hitler's niece, Geli Raubal, was frustrated by an obvious cover-up, and Glaser believes that Hitler was responsible for her death. His failure to obtain justice in that case still haunts him, and when a Jewish art dealer is murdered and the contents of his safe stolen Glaser finds himself embroiled in another unsavoury political cover-up that reaches to the top of the Nazi hierarchy. As his attempts to investigate get him into deeper and deeper trouble, Glaser comes into contact with a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Now he is faced with a terrible choice - accept that the rule of law no longer runs in Germany, or try to take matters into his own hands .
The Crooked Cross provides an excellent - and disturbing - portrait of a society's slide into totalitarian rule. As democratic and judicial institutions are systematically undermined, to be replaced by an arbitrary and increasingly brutal autocracy, ordinary people find their lives progressively constrained. Rival political parties are banned. Journalists who ask too many awkward questions are thrown out of a job, exiled or simply disappear. Even art is controlled, with art forms such as Expressionism condemned as "degenerate" or "un-German" and their practitioners persecuted. Individuals or groups (including, but not only, Jews) who meet with the capricious disfavour of the authorities may find their property confiscated and their livelihoods destroyed. The law becomes gradually demoted to a tool of oppression, to be used as suits the whim of the new tyrants, large and small. Having done nothing wrong is no defence.
Against this background, Glaser's journey takes on a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god poignancy. Glaser is no political fanatic, but a decent and honest man who believes in the rule of law. Many readers may well find themselves wondering how they would have acted in his situation. The choices he is faced with - in particular, whether to risk his family's safety for his principles - make him a compelling character. Glaser contrasts well with the other members of the conspiracy, such as the committed communist Sepp Kunde and the aristocratic socialites Ello von Hessert and her unstable brother Rudiger. The von Hesserts move in exalted circles (Ello is effectively Hitler's girlfriend for most of the book), with all the privilege that implies. Whereas for Glaser and his family the potential danger is all too real.
The novel isn't a thriller as such, but nevertheless the plot manages to maintain a high degree of tension. Rather like The Day of the Jackal, the reader may know the outcome perfectly well, but the characters don't. While immersed in the world of the novel, I found myself suspending disbelief and hoping that the conspiracy would succeed and events would somehow all turn out differently. It's a considerable skill in historical fiction to make known events - especially events as well known as Hitler's career - seem open to possibility, and The Crooked Cross succeeds admirably.
All the plot threads are resolved either by the end of the novel or in the Epilogue, including the solution to the art dealer's murder and the fates of the central characters. A helpful Historical Note explains the underlying history and the liberties taken, and sets out which characters are fictional and which based on real figures. A map would have been useful, but it's not difficult to consult a modern atlas to find out where the various towns and cities are.
Thought-provoking novel charting a disturbing period in recent history.
More information on the novel and the historical background on the author's website.