Hitler’s Secret, the latest Tom Wilde Second World War thriller from Rory Clements, has a daring ‘what-if’ premise, as fellow WWII author Jason Hewitt finds out.
For novelists, finding a fresh, exciting take on World War II is by no means easy. It is a period strewn with the footprints of many thousands of writers trampling back and forth over it, trying to find something new that hasn’t already been said.
The secret that lies at the heart of Rory Clements’ latest thriller, therefore, is something to be congratulated. It’s a simple idea – the ultimate ‘what if’ – and something that has been much speculated, and yet, as far as I know, little used in fiction.
The story starts with Martin Bormann, Hitler’s notorious gatekeeper, pulling out of his desk drawer a Certificate of Baptism and Birth for a ten-year old girl named Klara Wolf. Bormann tells his henchman, Otto Kalt: “I want you to find her and dispose of her – and anyone who has ever been associated with her.” Soon, Father Huber, the priest who baptized Klara, is drowned in his font, and Romy Dietrich, a midwife, has been bound in a pig sty and is having her fingernails removed. It seems this child is worth quite a lot of bother and Bormann is hell-bent on keeping her existence secret.
Meanwhile, Cambridge history professor and the hero of Clement’s earlier novels, Tom Wilde, has been recruited to the newly formed Office of the Co-ordinator of Information and is requested to fly out to Germany to meet an old friend.
It’s 1941 and the peace between Germany and the US “is hanging by a thread”. Jim Vanderberg is one of the remaining senior officers left at the depleted United States embassy in Berlin. Wilde, under the short-lived guise of an American businessman, opportunist and Nazi sympathiser, meets Vanderberg. He tells Wilde of a ‘package’ that he needs Wilde to smuggle out of Germany. Everything has been arranged. The only problem is that the net is already tightening around them. Bormann’s henchmen are closing in on the package too. And so, the race begins.
It’s an exhilarating ride. Wilde, his accomplice Sunny Somerfeld, and Klara are soon scrambling through Germany with Bormann’s thugs in fast pursuit. There is no denying that Clements is a master at crafting a page-turner. Various plot threads weave swiftly in and out of each other at break-neck speed and each short scene ends with a cliff hanger enticing you to read on.
This is the fourth Tom Wilde novel, and Clements seems well at ease with his protagonist. Wilde is an everyman turned extraordinary, an unlikely hero with more gung-ho to him than most history lecturers I’ve ever come across, but he has a charm, too, that you can’t help but root for. He is supported by the elusive Sunny Somerfeld who is rather too fond of saying “Gott in bloody Himmel” and is an enigma for much of the novel. She is efficient and cold in places whilst, in other scenes, she goes to pieces, so you never quite know whether she is putting on an act. Meanwhile, ten-year old Klara is both obstinate and endearing and her Nazi indoctrination soon threatens to undo all of Wilde’s efforts.
The novel’s villains are suitably vile. Martin Bormann is as abhorrent on the page as he was in real life, and Clements does well to show Bormann’s frustration at having to deal with a situation that he can only part control. His initial go-to-man, Otta Kalt, is in equal parts savage and incompetent, and Bormann soon enlists additional aid from Charlie Jung, an intriguing character who is wealthy, unscrupulous and works to his own agenda. Combined, they will stop at nothing to get the job done and they share a total disregard for life, or, indeed, women, who they largely see as mere objects to ogle at and arse slap.
What makes this novel enjoyable though is not just the concept and exuberant pace, but the fleeting historic details that give it some richness: the layout and routines of Hitler’s Wolfsschanze, his dislike for cigarette smoke which means that the chain-smoking Bormann is constantly having to flap the air in his office to dispel the stench, or the story’s use of Carinhall, Hermann Göring’s hunting lodge. Here, we meet Emmy Göring, complete with lion cub who is stroked ‘as though it were a kitten.’
Moments like this, give the story charm, but it is not without issues. Whilst the dialogue zings, it’s a little light on description and character depth; and there are some narrative turns that serve the story but defy logic. In Vanderberg’s office, Wilde has to read a long exposition on Klara’s back story which Vanderberg has written for him because Vanderberg claims they can’t speak aloud about it due to the room being bugged.
That’s fine, but when the two of them then immediately take a small boat out together where they are alone and out of earshot, you do wonder why the information couldn’t have been disclosed then. Elsewhere, the plot is served by a line of clothes inexplicably drying outside in the dank cold of December. When a character comments on this, it only underlines it more as a slightly awkward plot convenience.
These are minor quibbles though, and the chase out of Germany has such a tight grip on you that they are soon forgotten. We are, after all, here for the fairground ride of a fast-paced thriller. And what a ride it is! The narrative turns come so quick and many that it is only as the final twist is revealed that Clements allows you to draw a deep but satisfied breath.
Jason Hewitt is the author of The Dynamite Room, which was longlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize for New Writing 2014 and the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. His second novel, Devastation Road, was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2016.
He has written on the 2019 Holocaust Memorial Day theme, Torn from home, for Historia.