The Black Orchestra by JJ Toner is a historical thriller set during the period of the Third Reich. It is a thorough depiction of the terror and danger of that time.
The story is told in first person narrative from the point of view of Kurt Muller, a twenty-something man living in Berlin and working for the Intelligence Service. His suspicions that a colleague has been murdered lead to him unearthing information that proves to be potentially deadly both for himself and the dead man’s family.
At the centre of the mystery is Kurt’s uncle, a leading figure in the SS. Kurt’s relationship with his uncle is a double edged sword as it provides him with some protection and is the reason for his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Intelligence Service. However, his uncle’s shadowy presence also has ramifications for Kurt’s past and future as he begins asking questions about his father’s death and embarks upon a relationship with the mysterious Gudrun.
This novel is a must read for history buffs and there is no doubt that Toner has an incredible knowledge of this period. One of the book’s strengths is the way it contextualises events that we have all heard of such as the Night of the Long Knives and Turing’s work at Bletchley deciphering Enigma. At times though it feels as if Toner is listing all of the historical events at the expense of the pace of the novel. I suspect when you have such an impressive bank of research it’s tempting to want to include everything but I think in this case the factual information gets in the way of the tension.
My favourite parts of the novel are the ones when we are shown the human cost of the Nazi regime. The Jewish shops that Kurt had frequented before Hitler’s rise to power were now burned out with the words “Achtung Juden” painted on them. Vigilantism is encouraged by the state and there is a scene where a man is singled out and grabbed by a mob that proceeds to hang him which is especially haunting. The terror of constantly looking over your shoulder and being afraid of not being seen as a “good German” permeates the novel very effectively.
Some of the characters are used very skilfully by Toner to show the horrors of the Nazi ideology, for example Kurt’s friend, Alex, has a brother with learning difficulties who falls foul of the Eugenics Court. Friends turn on each other as the slightest rumour can lead to the Gestapo torturing you and ultimately sending you to a labour camp. Kurt himself becomes the subject of Gestapo interrogations on a couple of occasions. The impact this had on people’s mental health is conveyed successfully via both Kurt and Alex. Toner introducers so many characters into his story however that it is really difficult to keep track of who is who without constantly going back to check which gets in the way of the flow of the story.
Most of the novel is set in Germany but half way through the action switches to Ireland where Kurt’s mother lives and spies have been despatched in order to encourage the IRA to help the Nazis. There are plans for an IRA bombing campaign which would distract England from the war effort. This was an interesting diversion as I had no idea that the IRA and the Nazis worked together. It is through a visit to Ireland that Kurt learns the truth about his father and becomes involved in an anti-Nazi group called The Black Orchestra.
For me one of the weaknesses of the novel is the character of Kurt as I found it hard to relate to him. Given that his mother lives in Ireland and he had studied at university there I couldn’t understand why he had returned to Germany at a time when, for people not sympathetic to the Nazi cause, it must have been horrendous. By 1940 Kurt had already rejected Nazism and there was no evidence that he had been a supporter even before that. There are other characters such as Johann, who embraces Nazism out of self-preservation or Blesset whose father was a brown shirt and was indoctrinated in the Hitler Youth but Kurt has no allegiance to Nazism and seemingly few links to Germany.
There is much to recommend this novel; it is a wealth of information about an important period of history which lends itself perfectly to fiction. When it works, Toner conveys the human price that was paid in such a way that it is both moving and unbearably tense. For me, however I would have preferred less of the factual information and more detailed characterisation as this would have allowed me to fully immerse myself into the story. Having said that, The Black Orchestra is a well written thriller and I think readers who enjoy history will get a lot out of it.