It’s 1937 and Dieter Merz is the ace of the Condor Legion, flying the new Messerschmidt 109 against Russian planes in the Spanish Civil War, called Der Kleine, the Little One. Toward the end of that year, Tom Moncrieff, an ex-Marine fluent in German, and trying to make his father’s estate in the Highlands into a shooting resort, is recruited by a shadowy part of British intelligence, to gather information about the Germans and their plans regarding the Sudetenland.
It’s 1938, and Dieter, having been injured seriously in a crash, is a celebrity and has been sent to Japan to gather information about Japan’s aerial strength. He meets Keiko, the sister of a Japanese flyer, who is able to nurse his cracked bones back to health. Meanwhile Tam is in Czechoslovakia with the wife of a Jewish Czech refugee, trying to gauge how strong the push back against a German advance might be.
Graham Hurley is one of Britain’s most under-appreciated thriller writers. His series of Faraday and Winter were as good as any of the British lonely detectives, helped by the uneasy balance of the two main characters, and their picture of Portsmouth depended on Hurley’s pin-point characterisation, built on an empathic understanding of even the worst of them. Now he’s turned his hand to thriller set around World War II, of which Estocada is the third, which provides him with more chances to challenge that ability to define venal characters, and to explore their ambiguities. His portrayals of Goering, Ribbentrop and Hitler himself catch edges of each man that aren’t typical, but bring them to life in a completely non-mythic way.
The plot, of course, brings Dieter and Tam together, in Berlin , still in 1938 but with war on everyone’s minds. But in Estocada (a word Dieter picked up in Spain, meaning the matador’s death-strike on the bull) the focus is the way this impending conflict affects the lives of those involved. Not just our dual protagonists, but their friends, the victims they encounter, and especially those they love.
Behind the usual tense questions and rushes against time you’d expect from a thriller, and the dangerous spy turf of Nazi Germany, the heart of this book is the question of just how committed one can be, how necessary it may be to have something more powerful than oneself in which to belief and for which to live and die. Like many of Hurley’s novels, regardless of their milieu, this is a book about compassion and human values. As such it gets beneath the usual tropes of his latest genre, and is an engrossing read.
Estocada by Graham Hurley
Head Of Zeus, £18.99, ISBN
note: this review appeared first at ichael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets