Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Dresden GreenThe Dresden Green by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"He had not wanted Louis never to know what hit him. He enjoyed waiting for knowledge to dawn, and that was why he smiled. If the man had not had this revolting instinct of sadism it would all have gone perfectly smoothly, but Louis had a reaction that belonged, properly, to a Louis who had been dead for twenty years [...], the Dresden days as he called them, that he hated, dreaded."

The Dresden Green (1966) is Nicolas Freeling's seventh book, another non-series entry (yay!), and the thirty-fourth work of his that I am reviewing here. It is a straightforward psychological crime/suspense novel, with a somewhat unusual twist - an alternative history component. Mr. Freeling uses a twist of this kind also in his Double-Barrel , where I do not think the fictionalization quite works; here it does not hinder the plausibility of the story.

The setup of the novel is quite audaciously unusual. Louis Schweitzer, born in Alsace, the land that separates and links France and Germany, works as a simultaneous translator, specializing in Russian, for the European parliament. One weekend, when hiking in suburban woods, he finds a fatally wounded man, who tells him - in Russian - that an extremely valuable object is hidden nearby. And so Mr. Schweitzer finds the famous Dresden Green Diamond, acquired in the early 1700s for the Dresden collection by Augustus II, the Elector of Saxony and the King of Poland. Mr. Freeling suggests that at end of the Second World War, during the "liberation" of Dresden by the Soviet army, the soldiers looted the diamond. (While the Green Diamond indeed exists and is exhibited in Dresden, its disappearance belongs to the alternative history.)

The further part of the novel reads as a tense and well-plotted suspense story. While Mr. Schweitzer appears to be a rather meek and gentle person, he in fact has a dramatic military past. He served in the French resistance in the early years of World War II and - when captured by Germans - he was forced to serve in their army on the Russian front. His young wife and little child were killed during the massive bombing of Dresden by American and British forces in February of 1945. This other Dresden connection and Mr. Schweitzer bitter war memories drive the plot.

There is an unexpectedly touching and captivating romantic thread in the novel: Mr. Shweitzer falls in love with Madame Wisniewska, a Polish translator also working for the European parliament. But - perhaps most of all - I love the ambiguous ending where Mr. Freeling performs a neat meta-literary trick.

A very good read and a top-shelf suspense story.

Three and a half stars.

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