To date, I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing two previous Samuel Marquis novels: The Coalition, a political assassination thriller, and Bodyguard of Deception: Volume One of his World War II Trilogy.
Now, I’ve read Altar of Resistance, the second book in that trilogy. Without question, Marquis has really upped his game with this one. In Bodyguard, much of the setting was in the Rocky Mountains where two escaped Nazi POW brothers with very different attitudes try to send secret information back to Germany. One is a die-hard, ruthless Nazi; the other is a loyal German whose patriotism does mean national pride but doesn’t extend to Hitler. In the mix, their Americanized mother tries to make sure law enforcement and counter-espionage entities chasing her sons capture and not kill them.
In Altar, Marquis compounds that family dynamic with a more epic sweep set during the Allied invasion of Italy, with many events occurring in the occupied, besieged city of Rome in 1943-1944. SS Colonel Wilhelm Hollmann represents the Germans trying to control the Italians while fulfilling the dictates of Adolf Hitler that include mass slaughters of Jews and the Italian resistance. He has two children. One is Major John Bridger of the American-Canadian First Special Service Force who has changed his name to distance himself from a family he feels is cursed , after his mother tried to kill his father 11 years before. His half-sister is Teresa Kruger, who becomes a partisan fighter killing Germans on Roman streets as she wishes to destroy the father she despises.
While we see Bridger go behind enemy lines and narrowly escape torture and death before joining the Allied invasion, we also witness Teresa and her resistance compatriots trying to fight their oppressors. We see Hollman interact with a large number of German and Italian fascists engaged in savage reprisals and cruelty of every variety. We also see Pope Pius XII wrestling with what his proper role should be in protecting the Jews and his people. Perhaps it’s the story of the Pope that could be the most controversial element of the novel.
For decades, the Pope’s role during the war has been debated with no easy resolutions. Did he do enough to protect the Jews? Why didn’t he be more public in denunciations of Hitler? In Marquis’s portrayal, the Pope wanted to preserve the Vatican’s neutrality, feared there would be harsher reprisals if he said much publicly, felt he couldn’t fairly denounce Hitler without doing the same to the Russians, and seemed very concerned about his august presence being forced out of Rome. He’s described as a secret agent for the allies, supporting three assassination attempts on Hitler, and he made all Catholic institutions in and around Rome safe havens for Jews for as long as he could before German betrayal.
With such a complex tableau with many significant players, no synopsis can possibly do the book justice. It’s more than evident considerable research went into establishing the events, settings, and especially the characters. In several appendices, Marquis spells out the biographies of the actual personages that populate his novel and explains who the models were for his fictional characters. For me, it’s astonishing how much went into this book that was published so quickly after his other recent novels. The man is prolific as well as deep. I look forward to volume three of the trilogy which, no doubt will come our way sometime in 2017.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Jan. 24, 2016: