Trouble is the engine of fiction, and a novel set during World War II has the advantage of plenty of trouble. Soldiers, spies, diplomats, refugees, commandos, secret police, prisoners of war: they are all there, and surely the war is more fun to read about than it was to live through.
Some of the best thriller fiction comes from the war. Here are ten of my favorites.
- The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
On the eve of the D-Day invasion, British MI5 believes it has caught all the German spies who might otherwise reveal the Allied invasion location. But one spy—the Needle, so called because he uses a stiletto—remains at large, and he must be caught before he can discover the Allied plan.
- The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean
Massive German coastal guns on the island of Navarone are preventing an Allied invasion of Greece. Bombing runs have failed and so commandos climb a massive rock face to get near the batteries. Gravity, Germans, and weather all work against the mission. It’s a close-run thing to the very end.
- The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins
In 1761, Frederick and 50,000 soldiers were surrounded by Russian armies and on the verge of annihilation. Then Frederick’s archenemy, Empress Elizabeth, died on the Russian Christmas Day and her nephew and successor, Czar Peter III, a lifelong admirer of Frederick, called the Russian soldiers home. The lesson is that one man can make a difference. German Army Colonel Radl is assigned to kidnap Winston Churchill. The plan is diabolical, and it may succeed.
- The Bridge Over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle
My wife’s uncle was a prisoner of war held by the Japanese in Malaysia. He survived but was dogged by malaria the rest of his life. The Bridge Over the River Kwai is fiction but sufficiently realistic to be fact, according to him. The novel is as good as the movie.
- HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean
When I was working my way through school, I lived on my family’s wheat farm in eastern Washington. There was no television reception so Dad and I read novels every night. The Almira tavern had a put-and-take shelf of novels, including many Alistair MacLean thrillers. Reading MacLean taught me how to write.
- Von Ryan’s Express by David Westheimer
The author was a B-24 navigator shot down over Italy and was interned at Stalag Luft III. In the novel, the Allied prisoners learn to loathe Ryan, the spit-and-polish senior American officer, and they insultingly add the Germanic von to his name. The POWs are put onto a train heading deeper into the Reich but Ryan’s plan is to take the train across the Swiss border. Hundreds of POWs on a speeding train, the Wehrmacht right behind them. What could go wrong?
- To the White Sea by James Dickey
Muldrow is a tail gunner who parachutes from a damaged bomber over Tokyo. The city has been set afire by the bombing raid, and Muldrow flees into the Japanese countryside. He is remarkably adept at surviving. The reader eventually realizes that Muldrow might not be your standard thriller hero. Or anybody you’d want to be in the same room with.
- The Dirty Dozen by E.M. Nathanson
Twelve convicts are offered a deal: sign up for what is likely a suicide mission and they may escape the gallows. They are a grubby, surly lot but are shaped into a commando squad by an Army major who isn’t strictly army either. Even if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll love the novel.
- The Unlikely Spy by Daniel Silva
Catherina Blake is a German spy, or maybe she’s a British double agent. Maybe she is stealing the real Allied D-Day invasion plans, or maybe the plans are an elaborate Allied ruse. Maybe she survives, and maybe she doesn’t. Readers of D-Day histories know that spy detection in Great Britain just before the invasion was a harrowing business, and Catherina’s story is just the same.
- Enigma by Robert Harris
Tom Jericho is a mathematician charged with deciphering the German submarine code, and he must do so before a huge American convoy, which has just set sail for Great Britain, can reach U-boat waters. Jericho’s mental health is precarious. He is a genius but his freaky intelligence comes with a mental price. Can he keep himself together to crack the code?
James Thayer’s new novel, House of Eight Orchids—set in China during World War II—is being published by Thomas & Mercer in January.
Link to James Thayer’s author website: http://www.jamesthayer.com/