The Black Orchestra, by JJ Toner, is a mesmerizing spy thriller set in Nazi Germany during World War II.
Kurt Muller, an Abwehr signalman, shows up to work and finds that his coworker is dead at his radio receiver. The police barely investigate the death and quickly determine it was a suicide. Kurt doesn’t agree. He begins his own investigation, but not many want him to. Kurt’s inquiry leads him to a German resistance group. Kurt has to choose between his conscience and duty.
Historical fiction thrillers have a lot of moving parts that need to be grounded with historical facts in order to be believable. JJ Toner didn’t back down from the challenge. The Black Orchestra is a taut thriller that proves simple storytelling is effective storytelling. He relies on the setting and history to create an eerie atmosphere that puts the reader on edge right from the start. Just writing the word Gestapo will put fear into many hearts and it is easy for the reader to visualize what’s going on.
The tension builds slowly. At times it seems that the author has gotten off track, but then he surprises the reader with stringing everything back together. This change of pace can put off readers that prefer all action. But readers who enjoy the subtleties of intelligent thrillers will appreciate his efforts and will enjoy the exploration into the unknown.
The author has a firm grasp on German history. At times he mentions events that are integral to understanding the time period, such as Kristallnacht and The Night of the Long Knives. However, he assumes that the reader has done their research as well. The incidents may be familiar to some, but probably not all. Developing the back story, not just the historical turning points mentioned, but the characters’ pasts would have enhanced the suspense in the novel. Nazi Germany was a terrifying place. It was hard to know who to trust. The author uses this, but developing the back story more would have helped immensely.
The author’s description of Berlin helps the city come alive. It plays a large role not only in the novel, but during the time period. The reader gets an inside look of what it was like for average citizens living in Berlin during World War II under Hitler’s thumb. These glimpses are truly terrifying and a wonderful addition to a story that is already brimming with suspense.
The one aspect that doesn’t seem to flow as well as the rest of the story is Kurt’s relationship with Gudrun and then his brief relationship with Liesel. Both of these women play a vital role in the end of the novel and some may wonder if the author figured out he needed more motivation for the main character in the final pages and padded the book with Gudrun and Liesel. Or were they added since it seems almost every spy novel needs a love interest? It’s a shame their characters weren’t developed more since they had so much potential. Luckily their roles don’t detract the reader too much from the central plot.
This novel will appeal to readers who enjoy intelligent historical fiction thrillers.
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