1918, Bolshevism, book review, coming-of-age narrative, conspiracy, cover-up, faithful to history, First World War, Germany, historical fiction, home front, Luke McCallin, murder, mystery/thriller, no and furthermore, superb characterization, war-weariness
Review: From a Dark Horizon, by Luke McCallin
Berkley, 2021. 505 pp. $28
As summer parches the despoiled earth of northwestern France in 1918, young Lieutenant Gregor Reinhardt, Seventeenth Prussian Fusiliers, has fought both east and west. A blooded warrior who commands a company of men older than himself, he senses the cause is lost but fights hard because that’s what he must do, and because he’s loyal to his comrades.
Consequently, when a booby-trap explodes at a divisional staff meeting behind the lines, killing several senior officers, and a soldier he recommended for a battlefield commission is blamed for the deaths and quickly executed, Reinhardt can’t sit with this. Receiving tacit permission to investigate from a sympathetic colonel — not that he would have twiddled his thumbs otherwise — the nineteen-year-old lieutenant begins to ask questions.
No sooner has he done so than he falls into a rabbit hole of conspiracy and murder, with blood having blood to eliminate witnesses; sometimes, he’s the target. After all, he served on the Eastern Front, where he came in contact with Russian soldiers infected by defeatist, socialist ideals, and the protégé executed for the booby-trap explosion was known to be insubordinate, radical, and a malcontent. So Reinhardt’s the perfect fall guy.
Participants in the conspiracy, whose goal and breadth he can’t penetrate at first, appear to include very senior commanders, deserters, Bolsheviks, doctors treating shell-shocked soldiers, dissenters, and, pervading all, the frustration and anger at a war that continues to chew up and spit out lives, though there can be no hope of German victory. The narrative therefore makes an unusual coming-of-age story of a young man trying to live morally where few, if any, morals exist. You may also read the novel as a labyrinthine thriller or mystery, with qualities of each, which will keep you guessing until the last page. But from whatever standpoint you approach it, From a Dark Horizon is first-rate First World War fiction.
Start with Reinhardt, who, despite his experience and responsibility, is still just an adolescent, truculent and earnest, occasionally pompous when he spouts principles, a character whose actions don’t always match his good intentions. Human, in other words. Most others around him have their facets too; I particularly like his sergeant, fiercely loyal but also brutally honest, and a mercurial captain who seems wildly unpredictable and who Reinhardt thinks is on his side but can’t be sure.
McCallin also displays an impressive command of the battlefield, rest area, home front, chain of command, you name it. No detail escapes his eye, and everything feels authentic, something rare in First World War novels. Consider this passage, one of many that bring the scene alive while also conveying feeling:
There were convoys bearing food and others bearing straw and hay. There were water convoys, and convoys of medical supplies, and long trains of horses and mules being driven up as replacements for those at the front. Troops hunched forward, each man heavy with equipment, shovels and helmets or metal spikes or rolls of wire clanking on their backs. Officers rode in limousines, and huge steam-driven tractors dragged monstrous howitzers. The noise was deafening, and the air was choked with dust. Sometimes singing would intermittently drown out the neighing of the horses and the clatter of harness and the bone-deep throb of motors, but the songs were few and the men marched to a different, darker tune than they had marched to in the spring of that year.
McCallin, who follows the history faithfully, re-creates the mood of both army and home front. He conveys the weariness for sacrifice that seems to have no purpose, the grumblings of revolution, and the political maneuvering to cast blame once the war finally ends. I admire this panorama very much, both for its historical grasp and adept fictional portrayal.
I like the thriller/mystery aspect as well, though several twists toward the end feel rather convenient, with fortuitous arrivals of powerful characters. One such character in particular, who seems to slide in and out of his ability to process what’s happening around him, is too helpful to the story as well. Even so, “no — and furthermore” bleeds through the pages, for whenever Reinhardt discovers the next link in the chain of conspiracy, that person typically winds up dead.
Enough bodies fall (more from foul play than combat) to staff a platoon, and the Byzantine links among them necessitate frequent recapitulations, usually in the form of Reinhardt explaining what he’s learned, and how. From a Dark Horizon, though its pages turn rapidly, can be talky at times.
This volume marks the last in the wartime series about Reinhardt’s exploits. But in his afterword, McCallin promises that his hero will have further adventures in the 1920s. I’m ready.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.