First thing’s first. Many thanks to Zohar for letting me pontificate and obfuscate on his very cool blog. I’ve been a reader of his for a little while now, and I’m extremely impressed by what he’s got going on here. I’m also extremely thankful for the opportunity to be a part of it.
Now that the brown-nosing is out of the way, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jonathan, and I’m addicted to old books. Well, maybe not “addicted.” Fond of? Intrigued by? Irresistibly drawn to? Hmm. Maybe “addicted” was the right word after all. At any rate, I operate a blog called I Read a Book Once where I offer up armchair literary criticism on both new and old texts, but, as you can probably imagine, the old ones captivate me the most.
Which brings me to the whole point of this exercise, a little book called Catch the Gold Ring by John Stephen Strange. As you might surmise, that name is a pseudonym. It’s way too cool to be the genuine article. The author’s real name is Dorothy Stockbridge Tillett, an English writer (and female!) who published 22 mysteries over a nearly 50 year career. Since she passed away the literary establishment has largely forgotten her, but that doesn’t mean her novels are any less enjoyable. Quite the contrary, actually.
Catch the Gold Ring was first published in 1955 (originally under the title A Handful of Silver) and tells the story of a former French Resistance fighter named Henri and his search for his brother’s betrayer seven years after the liberation of Paris. Being the self-styled WWII buff I am, the plot immediately captured my attention. The story begins with a series of flashbacks detailing Henri’s experience during the war, his family, and life in general under Nazi occupation. During this period there are two defining points in Henri’s life: his brother’s arrest and tortured execution at the hands of the Gestapo, and his love affair with his neighbor Magritte (who eventually leaves him inexplicably). Fast-forward seven years, and Henri still doesn’t know who betrayed his brother to the Gestapo. His Resistance friend Genet, now inspector of the Metropolitan police, has just uncovered a treasure trove of documents recording the identities of dozens of collaborators who spied for the Germans. They make several arrests, and after exhaustive interrogations they learn that every one of them received instructions and made reports to a man over the phone they knew only as “Albert.”
The trail goes cold for several weeks as both Genet and Henri follow their own lines of inquiry into the identity of Albert. At the same time, Henri’s old flame, Magritte, reappears along with her rich American husband. She flirts with Henri, tries to seduce him, and then abruptly pulls back. Henri realizes then that he still loves Magritte, and soon both his desire for her and the search for Albert begin to consume him. As the investigation begins to pick up steam, though, it becomes obvious that his brother’s betrayer is someone close to the family, and Henri begins to simultaneously yearn for and dread the coming revelation that will turn his world upside down.
To be honest, though, the final revelation ain’t exactly very… revealing. Astute readers out there will find the ending plot twist to be pretty transparent. I figured it out about 1/3 of the way into the book. That isn’t to say, however, that Catch the Gold Ring was a horrible read. It was very well written with deep characterization, an absorbing setting, and an engaging plot. But perhaps the most intriguing facets of the book—to this reader, at least—were the historical details with which Tillett peppered the narrative. It prompted me to do a little research of my own on the French Resistance, the establishment of the French Provisional Government, and period of vigilante justice that took place in between.
I’m sure you’ve heard at least some of the stories about what has been called the épuration sauvage (wild purge) that took place immediately after the liberation of France. During that time approximately 9,000 accused collaborators were executed without trial, and thousands of women accused of “horizontal collaboration” had their heads forcibly shaven (which gave rise to the term les tondues, or “the shorn”). Then there were the trials in which an additional six thousand-some collaborators were sentenced to death and almost 50,000 were stripped of their civil, political, and professional rights, essentially making them second-class citizens. Of course, as time went on many of the sentences were commuted or overturned, and the legal system dealt with newly unearthed collaborators much less harshly than they had during the initial purges.
And with that oh-so-appropriate segue, I would pose a question to you, gentle readers. Well, several questions, really. It has been said that time heals all wounds, and while that might not always be true, it does have a way of at least blunting the pain (as shown by the more lenient sentencing for collaborators brought to trial at later dates). So now that we’re some sixty years removed from the horror of WWII, what do you think about the punishment meted out against the Vichy regime and other collaborators with the Nazis? Do you think it was just? If such an event happened to day, what would your reaction be?
For me the answer is a hard one. I simply don’t know. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and offer even-tempered judgments, but if I had experienced some of the horrific events of the French occupation, I might have been on the street with the rest of them shouting for blood.
About Jonathan: He makes a living in the world of corporate IT, but he gets his jollies through the nirvana of armchair literary criticism. Blame it on a liberal arts education and liberal quantities of whiskey. It’s a dangerous combination, one that has resulted in a blog called I Read a Book Once, where Jonathan can express his cantankerous inner literary critic to the fullest extent. When not reading, writing, or getting his geek on (i.e. working), he mostly hunkers down in the bunker with his red-hot smokin’ wife and tries to survive the hurricane that is his half-crazed toddler.
Zohar – Man of La Book
- New Direction for Literary Critic: Two Books of Fiction by Clark Zlotchew Now Available for Purchase (prweb.com)
- Sketches from descriptions of famous literary characters (lostateminor.com)
- A Train in Winter: A Story of Heroism from the French Resistance (paulrwaibel.com)
- Literary Blog Hop: Criticism as Autobiography? (jillianreadsbooks2.wordpress.com)