Plague proportions

Of the many ways planet Earth ceases to exist, over-population isn't one of them. Whenever that likelihood appears to arise some force _ God, nature, human _ steps in to reverse the process. Comets, floods, disease, ethnic cleansing, wars. Millions, tens of millions die.

World Without End by Ken Follett 1,262 pp, 2012 Pan paperback Available at Asia Books and leading book shops, 950 baht

There are those who call it just punishment for some sin they committed, but such a charge is unjust. The good and bad perish together. Surviving is arbitrary, luck rather than who is fittest. Every soldier seeing the man next to him shot knows that.

The influenza pandemic after WWI is estimated to have felled 20 million people, the Black Plague of the mid 14th century 40 million. A cure was never found for either. Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong were responsible for more deaths than both. More cullings of humans may be depended upon to contain their growth.

Novels about those and other catastrophes make frightening yet fascinating reading, particularly when they are well researched. Less so the imaginative stories novelists feel impelled to intertwine with the actual events. Another drawback is that several scriveners keep writing a story until their ink runs dry.

Ken Follett wasn't always like that, but the Brit's latter novels doubled, then tripled in length. They are now over 1,000 pages. Readers looking for a good read are put off by the size of his tomes. His subject matter varies, as do time and locale. Of late it's mediaeval Europe.

World Without End is set in 14th century Norman England and France, starting in 1327 and ending 25 years later. Much is made, needlessly this reviewer would say, of a buried letter stating that the queen murdered her husband. More attention-holding is the battle in which Welsh bowmen decimate attacking French knights. Then the trial and "proof" of witchcraft, how nuns take down a thieving prior. And, most importantly, the devastation of the Black Plague, caused by rats out of Asia, their fleas and lice.

Karis, the protagonist, is an accused witch who as a nun and nurse saves lives by introducing linen medical masks.

The author notes that during 1345-48 European society was turned upside-down with nuns marrying and having children, farmers facing down lords, traditions of all kinds ignored. Highway crimes diminished as thieves entered the homes of the dead and took what they wanted.

World Without End has its merits. However, need it go on and on?

Creole Belle by James Lee Burke, 529 pp, 2012 Orion paperback Available at Asia Books and leading book shops, 650 baht

Nazis on the bayou

With the end of WWII and the Allies arresting Nazis for crimes against humanity the worst of them, the SS, doffed their black uniforms and fled abroad or changed their identities to blend in with the general population of their own or other countries. Simon Weisethal and other Nazi hunters spent years trying to ferret them out.

Israel had the greatest success, locating and kidnapping Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. Others too were found and brought to justice but, sadly, most were not and over the decades most passed away peacefully in their beds. Still, every now and again, one is uncovered and tried.

American author James Lee Burke, whose contemporary crime thrillers are set in New Iberia Parish, Louisiana, has come up with a plot about a Nazi family that reinvented itself and moved to bayou country. To hear Alexis Dupree tell it, he'd been a hero of the French Resistance. Yet those talking to him find his French accented, but his German perfect.

There are other things about the 90-year-old man and his grandson Pierre that raise eyebrows. Acting that they are superior. Photos on the walls are of Nazi bigwigs, German and Italian men at arms. An album filled with locks of women's hair. All of which is explained away, albeit unconvincingly.

If I remember correctly, the Nazis who found refuge in the Americas kept a low profile. In Creole Belle, Burke favours the stereotype: loudmouthed, intimidating, violent. They're into racketeering, drugs, prostitution, forged paintings. Those threatening to expose them are beaten, tortured, murdered.

Parish detective Dave Robicheaux and private eye Clete Purcel, two of the author's literary creations, are the protagonists. Carryovers from previous books, both are veterans of the New Orleans Police Department, depicted as corrupt through and through. Dave is married and has an adopted daughter.

Clete is divorced and has a daughter who is a hitwoman for the mob, but isn't above clipping people she doesn't like. Dave wants her behind bars, daddy doesn't, which is the story's subplot. Incensed at being the quarry, the Duprees _ Alexis is in fact Karl Engels, a sadistic death camp guard _ turn on the hunters.

Lots of killings in the penultimate chapter, our heroes wounded, before relative peace returns to New Iberia Parish. Fiction and non-fiction about The Third Reich remains popular in books and on the screen. Creole Belle is one of the better ones.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Bernard Trink
Position: Freelance Writer