The other day I was wondering what had become of the author Michael Dean. I was reminded of his excellent novel “I, Hogarth” (2012) which was one of the first books I reviewed for NB magazine. It was runner up in my Books Of The Year (to Michelle Lovric’s dastardly “The Book Of Human Skin” (2010)) and I revisited it here on the Blog site in 2015 in my 100 Essential Books Strand. His depiction of the life of artist William Hogarth, I stated, “ feels like it dates from the eighteenth century and this can only be achieved through immaculate research which plunges us seamlessly into Hogarth’s London.” I haven’t read any more Dean since although I was aware of a book called “The Crooked Cross.”
These reminiscences led to a bit of research and I discovered post-Hogarth Michael Dean has been involved with a five book series sometimes known as “Darkness Into Light” and also as “The Rise And Fall Of The Nazis” of which the aforementioned “The Crooked Cross” is Book 2.
I found it as a cheap 5 volume e-book edition from Sharpe Books and remembering the excellence of “I, Hogarth” gave the first book a go. This is an account of the events leading up to the assassination in 1922 of Weimar Republic Foreign Minister, Walter Rathenau, who was Jewish. It is debatable whether Hitler’s rise to power would have happened without this event as Rathenau was on the verge of bringing about the renegotiation of the Treaty Of Versailles, which was one of the main causes, as we no doubt remember from school history lessons of Hitler’s ascendancy and World War II.
Story-wise this is gripping stuff. I knew nothing about Rathenau and the build-up to his demise is genuinely grim. However, and this entailed quite a bit of double-checking to see whether this was in fact the same Michael Dean whose handling of historical fiction I had so loved before, the style is bizarre, making it one of the oddest books I have read in a while.
Dean is here very factual, outlining the events as in a non-fiction work. There’s a messy prologue which I had to read a couple of times to make sense of and even in the main text his style seems like notes or an outline for what could have been a tremendous novel. Occasionally, scenes are developed, particularly here in terms of Rathenau’s homosexuality which left him vulnerable to blackmail and this together with increasing hatred of his religion amongst parts of German society gives the man a very strong personal dimension to write about. But Dean could have done so much more with this material. The research is impeccable, but unlike in “I, Hogarth” he does not consistently do the next step of merging that research into the fiction. This seems to be an odd stylistic choice here as this is an author who can really bring history to life. Here his telling rather than showing his audience is off balance which feels ultimately unsatisfactory. When the facts are developed it’s good but it is not done to an extent that I would have hoped for in this short novel. I’m wondering if this was a kind of tacked-on prequel as it was the second in the series “The Crooked Cross” that I knew about prior to this. All is certainly not lost and I remain interested in the series but I think that the potential to develop the life of this significant man into a superb slab of fiction has been slightly missed.
Before The Darkness was published by Sharpe Books in 2015. It is published as a stand-alone but it is better value at the moment to buy the five book “Darkness Into Light” collection.