Historical mysteries can hold our attention with a good brain teaser, even while they teach us timeless lessons about humanity. That gives you two good reasons to read THE PALE HOUSE by Luke McCallin.
Set in Yugoslavia during the final days of World War II, THE PALE HOUSE centers on Captain Gregor Reinhardt, a German army intelligence officer assigned to a new, powerful branch of the military police. Reinhardt had been a police detective in Berlin and belonged to a resistance group secretly opposing the Nazis. His new position separated him from the group. An officer in an army he hates, Reinhardt is a haunted, tortured soul.
“There’s depth to Reinhardt,” McCallin says. “He feels his times very keenly. He feels his own inadequacies more keenly still. What I wanted to do in creating and writing Reinhardt was to make people think that he could be you. An ordinary man in extraordinary times, still trying to behave and believe in what makes sense, but so painfully aware of his own fears and limitations, and still knowing what is right and what is wrong.”
This novel is the story of what happens when this self-depreciating man with the dry sense of humor witnesses a massacre of civilians while he and the German army are retreating through Yugoslavia. While he does not consider himself a hero, he learns that there is more to the incident than anyone else believes. He is still a police detective at heart, so when five mutilated bodies turn up he is the one who sees the bigger picture. And he must decide what to do.
The foreign setting will certainly entice readers with the promise of adventure in the Balkans, a part of the world associated with intrigue and treachery. But McCallin admits that wasn’t the only reason.
“I love Bosnia,” McCallin says, “and I love Sarajevo. I spent six years working in Bosnia, and you can’t live there, or in Sarajevo, for long without it seeping into you. As much as it’s an overused analogy, Bosnia really is a historical and cultural crossroads.”
The author also finds the time period—World War II—fascinating, as a time when so many people’s ability to decide their own fate was crushed. As he puts it, “We like to think there is not much we cannot control, but in fact the raw edges to life are closer to us than we like to think. Not only that, but all a person can be cannot only be undone and brought to nothing, but warped away from what that person might have been.”
So like in other great mysteries, time and place are almost characters in and of themselves in this novel. And the protagonist’s internal conflict enriches the story, because like most writers, McCallin wants his hero to move and grow but in a realistic way.
“Our growth and development as people—as human beings—is not linear. But what works, or even doesn’t work, in life does not always work on the page. You have to come up with a character and a journey that lets you start at one point, and finish at another, and that allows you to show how the character has grown and changed.”
The watchwords for Reinhardt’s character and story are probably “change” and “consequence,” and watching him just trying to survive his times holds the reader, makes us interested in those changes, and those consequences.
One of the most intriguing facets of THE PALE HOUSE is the way in which Reinhardt’s legal powers and limitations differ from those of modern day police. On the one hand, as a German soldier in occupied territory he was virtually untouchable by the laws of the lands he was in. German soldiers then—very much like modern soldiers now sent to places like Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan—were a law unto themselves. Almost.
“As a soldier, Reinhardt is bound and constrained by the rules and processes and procedures that governed justice within the German government apparatus,” McCallin says. “The state the Nazis built was practically feudal, and deliberately so. Each part of it owed nominal allegiance to a common cause—usually encapsulated in the person of the Fuhrer—but in reality all the parts fought and warred and intrigued against each other. The civilians against the army. The army against the SS, and on and on.”
As he investigates the murders in THE PALE HOUSE Reinhardt soon learns that the more he exerts his authority the more likely it is that what he is after will prove more elusive. Evidence would not be found by him throwing his weight around and expecting the world and everything in it to conform. It would simply vanish or change shape and place and time.
This book is informed by the author’s extensive travel experience and, while he refers to the war in Bosnia as an obsession when he was a student, that was not the only part of the world to influence him.
“All the places I worked and lived—in Africa, in Russia, in Haiti, in Pakistan, in the Balkans—taught me something, or I saw something, or felt something about what happens to people—ordinary people—put in extraordinary situations,” McCallin says.
In some ways THE PALE HOUSE can be likened to other great historical fiction, or the books covering Fitzroy Mclean or even Lawrence of Arabia. And as the reader becomes immersed in the deadly challenges of the place and time, he or she cannot hope but wonder if Reinhardt will even survive the war. He wonders too. In fact, Reinhardt himself says, in the novel, “For a long time, I just wanted to survive this war. But surviving was not living and for a long time, I dreaded being asked to die in this war. But living was not surviving.”
McCallin says he has plans for Reinhardt stories set during the First World War, in pre-WWII Paris, in Marseille, in Berlin, and even an idea for a Reinhardt novel in Panama. But as for his surviving World War II, you will have to read THE PALE HOUSE and draw your own conclusions. The mystery, the setting, and this fascinating character, make it well worth the journey.
Luke McCallin was born in England, grew up in Africa, was educated around the world, and has worked with the UN as a humanitarian relief worker and peacekeeper in the Caucasus, the Sahel, and the Balkans. His experiences have driven his writing, in which he explores what happens to normal people put under abnormal pressures, inspiring a historical mystery series built around an unlikely protagonist, Gregor Reinhardt, a German intelligence officer and a former Berlin detective chased out of the police by the Nazis. THE MAN FROM BERLIN was published in 2013, followed by THE PALE HOUSE in 2014.
To learn more about Luke, please visit his website.