The British Lion | Tony Schumacher | 2015 | William Morrow | 450p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is November 1946 and Britain is defeated, part of the German Third Reich, its government fled to the US, itself largely tolerant of Germany, and the exiled George VI replaced by Edward VIII. Life has been turned upside down and nobody exemplifies this more than the British Lion, John Rossett. Before the war Rossett was a detective, during the war he was a hero, earning the accolade of British Lion alongside his medals, but once the war was lost he became involved in rounding up Britain’s Jews, his only friend his Nazi commander, Major Ernst Koehler of the SS. Lying in a hospital bed, shot up, Rossett can no longer stomach his part in the Final Solution, wanting nothing more than to return to his life in London’s police force. That’s if the Nazis let him live. But everything stops when Koehler’s wife and daughter are snatched from a shop in London by American spies. Desperate, Koehler asks Rossett to help him, to follow the trail and demands left by the kidnappers and to find his family.
What follows is a tense cat and mouse chase across a southern England in the grip of a harsh winter. The snow and ice befits the country’s desolation; the confusion of motives and allegiances entirely representative of Britain’s fallen state. Nobody can be trusted and, even though Rossett and Koehler might call themselves friends, friendship is not necessarily something to be relied upon. Nothing is straightforward. The British Resistance is not made up of heroes and freedom fighters but is instead the refuge of the country’s most unprincipled and ruthless criminals and gangsters. The American spies are themselves fighting for a country (and American ambassador Joseph Kennedy) with dodgy politics at best. There are good guys but sometimes they’re not on the side you expect. But above it all are the Germans, whose soldiers patrol Britain’s towns and roadblock its countryside. Rossett’s mission takes him into the heart of this captured land and into its darkest places.
The British Lion is the follow up novel to The Darkest Hour. I can certainly see the benefit of having read this first although, as a reader who hadn’t, I did find it easy to catch up on what had gone before and the characters almost immediately felt familiar. I will make a point of reading The Darkest Hour, though. I don’t want to miss out. Tony Schumacher writes brilliantly but not only is the prose sharp and entralling but he has also filled the novel, its characters and plot with a multitude of layers, playing with our sympathies while still having us on the edge of our seats.
There is all the action of a wartime or cold war thriller here – it is packed full of suspense and shocks. We move between the different factions, seeing them all at their best and worst (and the worst is very bad indeed). We see the horror that faces a Britain under Nazi rule through the character of Jewish scientist Ruth Hartz, but Ruth is also such a complex character and she carries with her some huge surprises. But our sympathies are most strongly pulled towards Koehler’s young daughter, Anja, whose character is beautifully drawn by Schumacher. There are lots of memorable moments in this novel but probably the one that will stay with me the longest is its most tender. How I cried.
The relationship between Rossett and Koehler is absolutely fascinating. These are not straightforward men and both are caught in situations they would prefer to escape. Both are ruthless, products of their time but also with the power to influence their time. I could never tire of reading about these two.
The British Lion is a powerful, compelling thriller – beautifully written and populated by complex, fascinating characters, drawn from each of the factions that rule and sabotage this alternate Britain. It is superb.