Written by John A Connell — This is a crime debut for John A Connell, a Paris-based author. Once a cameraman, he has worked both in Hollwood and for the small screen. Ruins of War features a former cop – Mason Collins – who is working as a criminal investigator with the American military police in the shattered city of Munich just after World War II.
Collins is called to a derelict factory virtually destroyed by fire and bombs. What awaits him is a sight that chills his soul. A man’s body, split open like a ripe peach, and with its four limbs removed, is mounted on a pillar like some sick exhibit in a chamber of horrors. On the floor above, the missing limbs are arranged in a macabre parody of a cross.
He and his small team are helped reluctantly by the German civilian police, led by the estimable Inspektor Bekker. Collins continually battles for resources and manpower because the victim of the crime is a German citizen and the US Army has more pressing crimes to solve, such as who has been making off with the Head Honcho’s whisky and cigars. Eventually, Collins gets the breakthrough he has been seeking. Firstly, a new victim of the killer turns out to be an American nurse, which stirs things up. Secondly, a young girl who has been living rough with a band of dispossessed orphan children is abducted by the killer, but survives to tell a very interesting tale.
Some of Connell’s descriptions are little short of magnificent. The images of ruined bodies trussed to the soaring columns of ruined churches, with roofs open to a bleak Bavarian sky, and the bomb-battered faces of stone saints gazing at the scene in mute incomprehension, are truly chilling. The sense of a wonderful city, ruined first by a poisonous political dogma and then by the inexorable power of a thousand enemy bombs, is almost tangible. You will smell both the dust and the corruption, hear the sobs of widows and orphans as they try to survive amid the devastation, and feel the sense of total hopelessness.
So the atmosphere in Ruins of War is fantastic, but where it is less impressive is, firstly, that we learn who the perpetrator is relatively early in the piece. It only remains for him to be tracked down by Collins and his team – the most likely option – or escape to live another day perhaps to feature in a sequel. Secondly, in the early part of the book Collins comes over as a decent but flawed investigator and his vulnerability part of the charm. In the final section of the novel, I felt the author let his enthusiasm for a good scrap get the better of him, and Collins becomes invulnerable. He sustains some big hits, but he just keeps coming, and coming, and coming.
The killer is a truly sinister and credible human monster, whose background in the Nazi death camps adds even more to the charge sheet. His complete mental, moral and social breakdown is described in painful detail, and we almost – just almost – begin to feel a shred of sympathy for him, albeit one where we shake our heads in a mixture of horror and pity. The overwhelming strength of the book remains the brilliant setting, and the contrast between the victors and their sybaritic lifestyle, and the vanquished, who trudge about amidst the ruins of their former lives – both literal and metaphoric – with heads hung low, bellies empty, and with all hope extinguished.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars