Book review: Where God Does Not Walk, by Luke McCallin

Set in the final days of the First World War, Luke McCallin’s thriller is a demanding but rewarding read, writes Allan Massie

German soldiers defend a shell-hole during the First World War PIC: The Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In the three previous books of this fine thriller series Luke McCallin has recorded his hero Gregor Rheinhardt’s experiences in the Second World War, the first of these novels beginning in Sarajevo in 1943. Now he retraces his steps, harking back to Rheinhardt’s service as a young Lieutenant in the German army in 1918, shortly before Ludendorff’s last attempt at a breakthrough, which was followed by the crumbling of morale and the great Allied victory in the Battle of Amiens.

Rheinhardt and his regiment have recently been transferred from the Eastern Front where the Russian Revolutions paved the way for German’s crushing victory. Now on the Western Front Rheinhardt finds that he and his fellow Easterners are regarded with suspicion and dislike by the veterans of trench warfare.

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The novel begins with a mysterious explosion destroying an army headquarters. One of Rheinhardt’s men – a pioneer or sapper – is the chief suspect, partly because of his well-known skills, partly because he is a socialist or communist. Rheinhardt is not convinced. This incident sets the novel galloping forward.

Where God Does Not Walk, by Luke McCallin

There is a huge cast of characters, mostly well delineated, and the plot is involved, not easy always to follow. Nevertheless it is compelling, as is McCallin’s depiction of an army – indeed a society – on the brink of disintegration and collapse. At its heart is a political reality – something which would corrupt Germany public life for a quarter of a century. This is the infamous claim of “the stab in the back”, and it is on this distortion of the truth that the plot turns.

Its essential element can be summarized briefly. Recognizing by the late summer of 1918 that Germany’s military defeat was unavoidable, and the war lost, leading members of the army staff and right-wing politicians were determined that the responsibility for the catastrophe should be pinned on “unpatriotic elements” – socialists, communists, trade unionists, intellectuals, academics and – of course – Jews. As is well known this black propaganda was successful and would be exploited by Hitler and the Nazis very quickly.

McCallin’s Rheinhardt finds himself suspect because he refuses from the first to accept the authorised version of the bomb explosion and everything that follows springs from his obduracy.

A good many English-language novelists have of course written books dealing with the condition of Germany in the years between the wars. One thinks for instance of Richard Hughes’s fine novel The Fox in the Attic, the first volume of a trilogy or tetralogy, never alas completed. Others have written well of the Hitler years – Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books having a huge popular success. Very few English-language novels, however, have dealt with the 1914-18 war from a German point of view. McCallin is therefore mining what is for English-language novelists a largely unexplored seam which happily proves to be a very rich one. It is a novel which requires concentration and the reader’s surrender – surrender well-rewarded.

There are some reservations – but when aren’t there? As it usual in thrillers and crime novels, there are scenes when the reader is required to suspend disbelief, just as when watching a Western. It is a very violent novel, but it could indeed scarcely fail to be that. War is after all inclined to be violent and McCallin’s treatment of what was then known as “shell-shock” is very good, some of the fights away from the Front, less credible. Rheinhardt has an ability to suffer and absorb punishment, beatings and torture such as in real life would consign him to a casualty ward for days. Still, James Bond had a few very nasty experiences, and most of us are happy to accept that the hero has the ability to make a speedy recovery and then hit effectively back. This is a convention of the action novel or action movie.

What one can confidently say is that Rheinhardt is a admirable and resourceful hero – so much so that I intend to seek out the earlier books in the series and look forward eagerly to the next one.

Where God Does Not Walk, by Luke McCallin, No Exit Press, 428pp, £18.99

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