Tuesday, February 16, 2016

World War II Horror from F. R. Tallis, THE PASSENGER

Mystery readers may know F. R. Tallis better under his other name, Frank Tallis, with which he brings out crime fiction, especially books set in Vienna. Like Ruth Rendell setting aside her most twisted and cunning psychological fiction to her pen name Barbara Vine, Tallis's two names allow a darker side to flourish vividly without the predictability of today's mystery genre.

THE PASSENGER is the fourth in the F. R. Tallis horror titles, all independent but also curiously linked by the powerful resonances among them: the chilling effect of voices not quite heard, of recorded versions of ourselves, of "deviant" forms of spiritual search that take the searcher out of the usual "communion" of belief. This time, Tallis probes a different culture, the intense intimacy of a submarine crew during World War II. The nationality of this crew -- Germans at the turning point of the war, just as America agrees to join the European conflict -- adds to the eerie distancing and terror that Tallis creates in the narrative.

Siegfried Lorenz, a skilled U-boat commander but a political skeptic, knows and excels at his real work: to comprehend the emotions and interactions of his crewmen and induce them to exert their best skills, within a "communion" of mutual effort and attachment. He inclines to more mercy than the Fuehrer's commandants are expected to show -- not only does he refrain from slaughtering survivors at sea, but he presents them with a bit of survival gear that his crew can spare, and leaves them with shards of hope.

So it's ironic that a special mission for his submarine results in the sudden deaths of two prisoners on board, and Lorenz can prevent none of the twists of fate: not the deaths, nor the apparent run of bad luck that follows, complete with what must be hallucinations, the appearance that one of the dead men is haunting Lorenz's sub, determined to undermine his command and the safety of his crew.

Lorenz makes the most of his brief relief between missions to seek information from an elderly doctor named Hebbel, a friend of his family in Berlin. In Tallis's framing, this interlude is the last moment Lorenz can claim as under his control in any sense:
'A curious thing happened on our last patrol,' said Lorenz, affecting an attitude of casual disregard. 'We were transporting a British prisoner who unfortunately dies before we could get him back to base for questioning. Shortly after, one of my mechanics had an accident -- he banged his head on a diesel engine -- and from that moment onward he kept on babbling about having seen the dead man.'

'The brain is a remarkable organ,' the doctor responded. 'But uniquely vulnerable.'
Under Lorenz's continued pressure and questions, the doctor finally gives his professional opinion on the hallucinations that Lorenz poses as a hypothetical -- but that are far worse than that. The doctor explains:
'The unconscious: that part of the mind that is not accessible to introspection. Deeper and wider than any ocean you have explored, my dear fellow, infinitely deep. ... Hallucinations might represent some kind of communication from the unconscious. ... if a person were, let us say, in some kind of danger, then the hallucinations might be construed as a warning.'
There are, of course, almost no moments when submariners are NOT in some kind of danger.

Tallis braids the complexity of the mind and spirit with the pagan symbolism chosen by leaders of the Third Reich, and lets Lorenz recount the battle, both personal and literal, erupting from the conflict of his humane beliefs and his tender care of his crew, versus the demands of German (or any) warfare.

Although THE PASSENGER is not a typical fit for the crime fiction genre -- even less so than Tallis's 2014 title The Voices (reviewed here) -- the depths and currents explored turn out to mesh with the darkness that lies within modern crime. The author is also a psychologist, and readers access the richness of  the practice, probing the strengths and dangers of the mind.

If you're reading the post World War I crime fiction of Charles Todd, the World War II mysteries by James Benn, or the classic "Regeneration Trilogy" from Pat Barker, THE PASSENGER will fit well with your exploration. Dark, direct, and chilling, it's an excellent read, deftly paced for psychological suspense and a very believable brush with the supernatural. I won't forget the terrors -- or the strong assertions -- of this well-written "gothic" novel with its ocean of symbols and its stormy crises.

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