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The Late Review: Werewolf

9th Mar, 2022

Author: Peter Tennant

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Matthew Pritchard's second novel Werewolf (Salt Publishing tpb, 312pp) is a compulsively readable detective story set in Germany in the aftermath of World War II. In the British controlled zone the body of a former Waffen SS officer and his female companion are found brutally murdered. Detective Inspector Silas Payne, a Scotland Yard officer seconded to Germany to train their police, is assigned the case. A British officer, Major Booth, offers to help him, but Booth has secrets of his own; he has requisitioned a farmhouse for the use of Ilse, a former Nazi trophy wife towards whom he has developed an attachment. The authorities are quick to credit the murders to a Nazi terror organisation named the Werewolves, but both Payne and Booth are dubious about such claims. The evidence puts them on the trail of a killer who was considered too vicious and depraved even by the standards of the Gestapo.

This is first rate crime fiction with a setting that adds another dimension to the action. Pritchard has obviously done a lot of research and it pays off, allowing him to create an entirely believable picture of occupied Germany in the immediate aftermath of WWII. At the risk of sounding all oxymoronic, what comes over clearly is the confusion, with nobody really knowing what they are supposed to be doing, and yet attempting to do the best they can. Add to that the psychological toll wreaked by the war, with everybody suffering from a surfeit of atrocity, so that events lack the capacity to shock that might be expected in more normal times.

Characterisation drives the story, with the four viewpoint characters giving us different perspectives that enable a full picture to emerge. Silas Payne is a man with a strong moral core, someone who strives to always do the right thing, regardless of the consequences for himself or others. He is not a pragmatist, and in this scenario his uprightness is resented by others. In his past he has seen his family suffer persecution, by way of his German mother in WWI, and he is not prepared to see something similar happen to others, this is his moral compass. He suffers dearly for the mistakes he makes in pursuing this case. Booth is similar to Payne, but not as strict. He has to function in a sphere where turning a blind eye to what others do is all too often de rigueur. And he has feet of clay, in that his attraction to Ilse leaves him vulnerable. And yet, ultimately, there are lines he will not cross. He is a good man and will do what he feels is right, even at cost to himself. Ilse is somebody who has compromised all her life, happy to ride high on the wave of Nazi popularity, but never really believing in the party, an opportunist who is now scrambling to survive any way that she can, even if it means taking a British officer as a lover. Yet she too has a moral dimension, in that she will not abandon brutalised cousin Ursula and is fearful of her brother and what he is now capable of, changed by the harshness of life in the army. Finally we have Little Otto, who is the polar opposite of Payne, but in his own twisted way has the same intensity and straightforwardness. He looks at other people only for the ways in which they affect his own goals, his desire to maim and kill.

And there are a whole host of other well drawn characters who add yet more depth to the story, such as the British commanding officer who will not look beyond his own prejudices or the German mother who, in retrospect, has come to hate the Nazis for what her family has suffered, and Ilse's brother Johannes for whom cruelty has become the only reasonable response, who finds in others the excuse and justification for his own brutality, while on the other side British troops are so horrified by what they have seen in the concentration camps that some are traumatised to the point they can only respond in like manner.

As backdrop to all this, there is the strong sense of a world that has poised just steps away from an abyss, with a complicated and intriguing plot that illustrates the point by throwing up numerous examples of the evil which men are capable of. It's a heady, and at the same time sobering, brew. Pritchard has done a fine job of bringing this book into existence, a work that records atrocity piled atop atrocity, and yet finds within its pages compassion of a kind, even as it admits that, whatever happens, whatever we manage to save from the darkness, the slaughter will almost certainly continue in some form or another. Recommended.

 

 

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