Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Captive City

What a difference a decade makes.  Devoted followers of Crime Pays will know that I've been deviated from the strictly criminal with some forays into fiction about unconventional warfare.  John Appleby's The Captive City (1955, W. Sloane Associates) takes place just two years after All Night Long, in the same World War but in a completely different geopolitical landscape.  About halfway in, you realize that Uncle Joe and the noble square-jawed partisans of Caldwell's novel have been transformed into a dirty and sullen rabble, intent on repressing your personal freedoms.  Hmm, weren't we still allies with the Russians in 1944?

It doesn't take a lot of digging to learn that the events portrayed in The Captive City are historically accurate, and were in response to the absence of political leadership left by the departure of the Axis powers (Germany and Italy) and the arrival of the British.  Everyone knows that Soviet-style Communism loves a vacuum, so up rises the radical left in December, 1944, forcing a short but nasty conflict with the "liberator" Britons who probably don't support the King but are certainly for a democracy in the mold of their own.  The city in question - Athens - is held captive by the Communist forces, who have surrounded a hotel (The brilliantly-named Zeus) housing the "Balkan Information Mission" (a kind of Radio Free Europe news service), and a few random British and American soldiers and civilians.  The Zeus group is in contact with the British army, but must hold their position due to a cache of arms in the basement.  They are occasionally harassed and later heavily attacked by the insurgents, and here, I'll give it away, they eventually hold on long enough for British reinforcements to arrive.   Hoorah, the the forces of freedom are victorious (for the moment;  the ensuring Greek Civil War will rage for most of the 1940s).

But guess what:  this is a kind of crime story, after all!  There is a SPY in the group that is stuck in the hotel, and Our Hero, Captain Peter Whitfield, must deal with that while figuring out how to get word through to the British lines that they really REALLY need reinforcements NOW.  You'll spend some time trying to decide which of the somewhat stock characters are the hotel is the spy.  Is it the freewheeling Yank?  Lelia, the beautiful passionate young Greek woman or her patriotic father?  The Jewish radio operator, the sardonic Scottish hottie, the sexpot, or the chip-on-his-soldier other British officer?  Clues are dropped, and some red herrings will keep you guessing.

This is a good story - taught and well-written, and even if it deals in the obvious, like Lelia pulling Our Hero into a doorway for an extended smooch while the guard walks by - you'll keep reading to find out what happens.  The whole thing feels like it would make a great movie.*

That is, if you aren't knocked out by the heavy-handed political message that starts to be delivered about half-way through the book.  Because the advent of the spy thread means that "Someone inside the Zeus Hotel . . . was working for a cause which if it triumphed would end in anarchy."  (91)  The story hums with action until about the time they figure out there is a traitor in their midst.  It still buckets along after that but trumpeting its ideological message ever more insistently.  Before he sets out for help, Whitfield is reluctant to distract his superiors with requests for assistance.  "Deep inside him a conviction had crystallized that that until all else had failed, his duty was to hold on with what he had, and allow the major task to continue undistracted.
  There were an army in a hostile country, and even now they were not far from defeat.  A little thing could change the balance, and the outcome would be vastly more momentous than losing a squalid little campaign in a corner of the Balkans.  Defeat could fasten red tyranny on the very shores of the Mediterranean, and to prize it loose might be the work of years.  There had already been enough D days, enough flamboyant promises to return, enough bodies washing in the surf.  The job was to remain."  (115)

And so on.  Is Whitfield truly prescient, or is this perhaps Appleby indulging in hindsight?  Had we held the line in Greece in the mid-1940s, would we not be in Korea in the 1950s?  I couldn't find out much about Appleby.  Maybe he was a spy!  Maybe he holds the key to knowing more about the Percentages Agreement, wherein Stalin and Eden supposedly carved up Europe into British and Soviet spheres of influence.  We'll never know unless I dig further into the internets, and they aren't giving up much easily.

Predictably, Our Hero finally lets fly when captured briefly by one of the insurgents.  "The Nazis have gone.  But every overthrown tyranny leaves a vacuum behind it [I said that above, I know!], and into a vacuum something always moves.  Here it is another tyranny, using different words but having hte same ends, absolute power.  You ask how a handful of guerillas can take over a country if the people are not behind them, and we both know the answer. An armed gang existing by terror can impose itself on a nation confused, divided, and defenseless. . . .
  "It won't work here.  You are going to be thrown out.  And if you come back - as you probably will - there will be more than the British to contend with.  Greece herself will fight next time, armed, and with a full belly.  The Western Allies will fight alongside her, knowing you at last for what you are. And you will be beaten, beaten, beaten."  (168-9).

By a few days later, the sun has come out, the British forces have gained ground, and the Zeus has been saved.  "In the side streets the business of living openly was already reasserting itself, and it was difficult to edge the jeep around the market stalls.  Whitfield reflected that the story he was to write must concern numbers of streets cleared, services restored, statistics, facts.  But the reality was something more nebulous.  It was this consciousness of life stirring anew, this feeling of being part of a society which for all its imperfections was deep-rooted, strong, essentially healthy - and indestructible.  It was a feeling deep in his bones and his  blood, and it would never leave him.  But he could not describe it."  (218)

Welcome back to the fight, Peter Whitfield.  This time I know our side will win.

The question for me is:  did we really think that way about those people in December, 1944?  I don't know.  Maybe British people did.  I do know that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, because of its good story, and in spite of its sense of historical anachronism.  Fans of Cold War fiction will like it too.

*And it is a movie.  David Niven played Whitfield in an Italian movie version of this, la citt√† prigioniera or Conquered City.  Can't you just see him delivering that big speech at the end, all tight-fisted clipped British delivery?

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