The Suicide Exhibition is the first part in a new series called The Never War. It is set during 1940-41 as the Second World War rages across the continents. It’s described as an alternate reality thriller; my preferred phrase is 'messed-up supernatural historical fiction'! It features Nazis, codebreakers, spies, archaeological digs and aliens. Imagine Indiana Jones set in Whitehall with extra crazy.
Our introduction to the strangeness to come is through a header for a classified report. It details an incident at Shingle Bay during August 1940. Or it would, but the actual records are sealed until 2040 on the orders of Churchill himself. In the ‘real world’ three FoI requests have failed. We, as readers however have the privilege of witnessing the event. Three enemy boats approach the English coast. They must be stopped at any cost. Gallons of petrol are pumped into the sea directly in their path. As the sea turns to flame our focus switches to a subject known as Number Five who, watched by two men, draws the scene obsessively, over and over again until his skin blisters and blackens. Finally he convulses forward and his pencil falls from his charred hand. Creepy and horrific; feelings intensified once one of the onlookers is identified as Heinrich Himmler.
And that’s just the beginning. The story moves to an archaeological dig. The Indiana Jones comparisons are not only apt because it is the Allies (good) versus the Nazis (evil), but also because the sites themselves are dangerous. Arcane knowledge is required to identify where to dig and how to deal with the contents; there are huge craters to jump, poison gas to avoid, killer spiders to crush…and the Ubermensch to control. I’m not exactly sure what the Ubermensch are, but they definitely have something to with ancient burial sites and the Vril. I’m not exactly sure what the Vril are either, but you don’t need all the answers in Book One. I do know that once reanimated the Ubermensch appear remorseless, relentless creatures devoid of fear and pity. Probably best not to allow the SS to control them without a challenge then.
I liked a couple of the characters very much. Major Guy Pentecross is splendid, unhappily stuck behind a desk at the Foreign Office after getting shot up at Dunkirk. His curiosity and flair for languages leads him to the mysterious Station Z. Leo Davenport is another favourite, a versatile actor and natural spy, and Elizabeth Archer at the British Museum is unflappable and knowledgeable. I wondered about the title, I’d never heard the term Suicide Exhibition before but it is explained in the course of the story and takes on another and more sinister layer of meaning by the end.
There are some chilling moments, for example the Ubermensch roaming the streets of London, and some nice nods to unusual events that actually happened during the Second World War, especially Hess’ flight to Britain. The appearance of Aleister Crowley captures creepiness and oddness all in one. The action happens at many different places, and in the latter part of the book speeds up – the final few chapters are a hair-raising and dangerous mission to North Africa.
I’ve been thinking about what type of story this is, what it says to me and what thinking points I can take from it. It is possible to read it as a fun story about bad Nazis and freaky aliens, but something else is nagging at me in my brain. The Indiana Jones comparisons make me think about the context of those films, about the Cold War and the relative security of having clearly a defined enemy. Our current global situation is not at all like the 1940s nor indeed the 1980s. I found myself partly heartened by the plucky British being brave and making sacrifices in the name of duty. I also found it a bit uncomfortable. What really intrigued me was the idea of fighting the forces of darkness without knowing exactly what the enemy is, what it’s capable of, what it wants or intends to do, or even how to identify it from the average person on the street. The Ubermensch look human. Of course I’m being too optimistic but perhaps it doesn’t have to be an enemy at all? Or at least not all bad? Simple binary oppositions of good and evil can be comforting, but have less resonance now perhaps. More will be revealed in the next book, I’m sure.
The Suicide Exhibition is available now in hardback from Del Rey. My copy came as a nice surprise from the publisher, thank you.