Written by Warren Adler and James C Humes, narrated by Nick Howden-Steenstra — Warren Adler is perhaps best known for his screenplay for The War of the Roses, the 1980s movie starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. He’s also written an array of thrillers and mysteries including the Fiona Fitzgerald series. Here he’s teamed up with the historian and Winston Churchill expert James C Humes for a fictionalisation of the British leader’s post-war period. We’re reviewing the audiobook recorded by Nick Howden-Steenstra.
It begins in 1946, and the Americans and British are celebrating a victorious end to World War II – all except Winston Churchill, who has lost an election to Clement Attlee, lost his good friend Franklin D Roosevelt, and feels what he calls his ‘black dog’ breathing down his neck. In order to stave off Churchill’s waning moods, his family and friends convince him to accept an invitation from Harry S Truman, to speak at a college in Fulton, Missouri. The result is one of Churchill’s most famous speeches, in which he famously likened the spread of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe to an iron curtain. The phrase stuck.
As Churchill plans his speech Soviet intelligence, the NKVD, are forming plans of their own. The Russians are fully aware of Churchill’s anti-Stalin sentiment and aim to negate it. Their plan involves the recently captured US-born SS-Obersturmbannführer Franz Muller, caught in the dying days of the war. They send Muller to Washington, DC, where he is to live as Frank Miller and await further instructions. Little does Muller know it, but he is part of a plan to execute Churchill as he makes his speech in Fulton, with the whole world watching. Muller spends his days at the YMCA, avoiding contact as much as possible and trying to guess at the exact nature of his assignment. As he waits he falls and breaks his leg, falls in love, and finally starts to formulate some plans of his own.
The two plotlines alternate, despite their differing timelines – months will pass between chapters in one timeline, while in the other the events of one chapter follow immediately after the other. In one, Churchill and other characters discuss the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki months after the fact, but in the next chapter Muller hears on the radio of the death of Hitler, an event which occurred four months before the Japanese surrender. There’s no indication of the shifting timeline, making the events seem disjointed if you know the history. The added difficulty with an audiobook is that it’s much more difficult to skip back a paragraph to check when something seems out of place. As the two timelines line up, events become much clearer, and the narrative is quicker and more addictive.
James C Humes and Warren Adler, with their different skills, combine well to create a meticulously researched thriller and it’s hard to tell what is fact and what is fiction. While the research and plotting are flawless, the writing is more often than not overwrought. Again and again there are three adjectives when one would suffice. For example, in an early chapter Churchill admires an “early morning sunrise”, as if the sun rises at any other time. What could have been a tightly-written novel is overly descriptive here and there.
Nick Howden-Steenstra’s narration makes for great listening – he has the kind of voice that Americans call accentless, which allows him to slip effortlessly between different characters – Russian, German, English and American. The accents he puts on may not be 100 percent natural but they’re never jarring. The pacing of the narration is perfect, and this makes Target Churchill the ideal thriller to listen to as an audiobook.
For more World War II crime fiction, click here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars