Hunting the Hangman – Howard Linskey
This exciting but downbeat thriller is a realistic fictional account of an audacious wartime operation that shook the Nazi world – the assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich. Hunting the Hangman is a thought provoking and insightful retelling. Thisis about Operation Anthropoid, set up by the SOE, (Special Operations Executive), in the Autumn of 1941 but very much a Czech mission. The brainchild of Eduard Benes, the London exiled Czech Prime Minister, the assassination plan was approved and supported by Winston Churchill. The target, Reinhard Heydrich, was deputy to Heinrich Himmler, head of the Reich Main Security Office and Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia. A man many assumed to be the natural successor to the Fuehrer. The plan to assassinate the man in charge of the brutal Nazi subjugation of Czechoslovakia would come at a high price. Heydrich was a man arrogant enough to believe that no one would dare to make an attempt on his life, he rode around the city in his car with a driver but no escort. Hunting the Hangman relates the story from inception and recruitment of the agents to the execution of the plan, the fall out and terrible aftermath. A story of the best and worst of humanity; a tale of conviction, sacrifice, betrayal and brutality.
The introduction to the novel provides a short explanation of how Linskey came to the story and how the novel was years in the making. It also sets the scene for readers new to this momentous event in European history, (a brief cast of characters and chapter quotes are a useful adjunct to the story.
Reinhardt Heydrich is an enigma, he may not be the best known Nazi but he is the one most people have trouble figuring out. Clearly erudite, courageous, fiercely intelligent and talented, (a highly regarded violinist). Yet he is known to history as ‘The Hangman’, ‘the Butcher of Prague’ and even his colleagues referred to him as ‘The blond beast’. His role as the instigator of the Wannsee Conference and the ‘Final Solution’ is highlighted in this novel. That Heydrich might have followed Hitler as Fuhrer may be one of the motivations for Benes’ plan. Linskey presents a chilling portrait of this man and the complexity of his character. A reflection on man’s inhumanity to man.
The heroes of the novel are the brave partisans, Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, the men who volunteered for this mission despite knowing the personal sacrifice it demanded. Linskey has imagined two men with the usual ambitions of the young, flawed but with a burning idealism; determined and brave. Keen despite the knowledge of the terrible cost of success and what it will mean for them personally and the people of Czechoslovakia. Believable young men, ordinary people rising to the challenge of extraordinary times.
Linskey has a flair for scene setting, such as the meeting between Benes and Churchill to agree the plan, or the introduction of Heydrich to the novel as a family man at a photograph session. We see the fear, apprehension, opposition, acceptance and enthusiasm for the plan by the local partisans who helped the two men carry out their operation. The merits of the plan are discussed – is this an assassination or a murder? Important questions of morality and consequence are explored. The action takes us from the Home Counties to the heart of Prague and the denouement at St. Cyril’s and St. Methodius church. Linskey sketches out places and people that provide real colour to the storytelling.
This is one of the most courageous and conspicuous events of the second world war, ideal fodder for a novelist but also a daunting task to do it justice and make it an entertaining read. Linskey manages to do this. ‘Hhhh’ by Laurent Binet, may be a more literary retelling of the events of Prague of 1942 but Hunting the Hangman is much more engaging emotionally. The novel is meticulous researched and a number of real events are brought to life with reimagined dialogue and descriptive prose.
Published in the UK by No Exit Press for the 75th anniversary of the incident, Hunting the Hangman is now out in the US from Kensington Books. For those interested, there are two movies that came out at roughly the same time as the UK publication of the book: ‘Anthropoid’ and ‘The Man with the Iron Heart’ and there was a film made in the 1970’s called ‘Operation Daybreak’.
Linskey has gone on to write another book about the SOE, Ungentlemanly Warfare. If you liked Corpus by Rory Clements I think this novel will interest you. If you want to know more about Heydrich as architect of the final solution there is a short book called ‘The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting‘ by Mark Roseman, detailing how the decision to exterminate the Jewish people of Europe was made in such a speedy and chilling matter of fact way.
US: Kensington Books, paperback, ISBN 9780786047024, Out Now
UK: No Exit Press, paperback, ISBN 9781843449508, 2017.
review originally published in NB Magazine 2017, revised for US publication date.