Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Literally the Best Reviews: The Second Midnight

The Second Midnight - Andrew Taylor
Harper Collins
400 Pages

I must have been in an historical fiction mood when I visited the Lockport Public Library way back in late February or early March when I was last able to stroll among the stacks. I picked up The Second Midnight by Andrew Taylor the same day I picked up The Rabbit Girls. Not only are both historical fiction novels, but they both deal with events that took place in Europe during World War II.

The book begins in 1939, just before the world erupts in a global war. The British government enlists the aid of a failing businessman to undertake a minor intelligence mission in Prague. Alfred Kendall brings along his son, Hugh, as part of his cover. Hugh, recently expelled from his private school over a theft, is somewhat frightened of his overbearing father as they travel through the foreign country. He uses the moment to embrace the culture to which he’s been introduced.

Alfred is a terrible spy who’s delusions of grandeur end up revealing to the Czech Resistance that he is a lowly peon who bumbles through the mission. When Hitler invades, the Resistance agrees to arrange to smuggle Alfred out of the country back to England. However, as part of that deal, Hugh must remain behind as sort of collateral with the British Secret Service. Alfred is less reluctant than expected when he agrees to the caveat. Hugh is placed with an elderly professor who has tenuous ties to the Resistance.

From the very beginning, Hugh finds himself in dire straits. His benefactor is killed by a stray bullet during a demonstration, and Hugh flees back to the only member of the Resistance he can remember -- a wealthy widow who borders on insanity. When the Nazi’s come knocking, she shoots one and is ultimately killed. Hugh must escape through the sewers to safety. He ends up with other members of the Resistance who were more militant than the others he knew, and ones who aren’t exactly fond of anyone foreign. 

During this time with his saviors, he learns to embed himself further into the culture. While he is not exactly mistreated by the two men who rescued him, he does not feel welcome. So, when he is attacked by one of them, he defends himself and inadvertantly saves the life of a Nazi colonel. The colonel takes him in to work at his manor. Hugh hides the fact that he is English and maintains the dupe that he is a Czech. As the war rages around them, Hugh stays in relative safety until the Resistance shows up. After his cover is blown, he must make his own escape back to a country he is not sure is home anymore.

After the war, Hugh is back in England and his family is scattered as they drifted apart through their vastly different views on life. Long thought dead, Hugh is greeted very warmly when he returns. Can he assimilate into the culture that he left behind half a decade before? Can he escape his past deeds from his time in Prague? As his life reestablishes among his fellow Englishmen, Hugh yearns for various aspects of his time in exile. Will he be able to overcome the obstacles thrown in his path?

The Second Midnight by Andrew Taylor is a novel of historical fiction that spans two decades, from the first spark of war, to peace, and to the rebuilding of lives afterwards. Taylor explores these three connected aspects of life, tying them together into a cohesive narrative that undulates with emotions. He shows that even in the seeming dark of evil there could be a little flash of light, and in greatness, there may be a touch of gray.

With character development, Taylor has taken several members of the same family and given vastly different people. Each is so unique that it almost appears like they were written and developed by different people. Alfred is almost instantly unlikable with his pettiness and his overeagerness to be greater than his talents will allow. His wife is a mere shadow on the page who progresses the plot points between Alfred and Hugh, but little else. Hugh’s brother is much like his father, but far more confident in his abilities, while Hugh’s sister has questionable morals that most people don’t think of some women having in those days. Hugh himself is a survivor, but always looking to that park of life in love.

I have been on a run of historical fiction lately. And it’s been a good run so far. As with The Rabbit Girls, Andrew Taylor’s The Second Midnight is a spectacular addition to that genre. If you’re interested in another piece of history from a different point of view, this is a book you should read. It’s not the everyday on the front lines of World War II that have been out there. It dips into a growing pool of books about people outside of the military during that time with the struggles they face under tenuous regimes. It captures more of the human spirit. And it’s done very well.

Craig Bacon loves history, especially the things that don’t make it into the history books. He loves stories of the human spirit.