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Peter Quinn's new book 'Dry Bones' asks hard questions

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Peter Quinn's new book 'Dry Bones' asks hard questions
Peter Quinn's new book

It can be a murky business, living, and no one knows it better than Fintan Dunne, Peter Quinn’s incomparable Irish American detective.

In Dry Bones, the third and easily the finest part of the trilogy Quinn started with The Hour of the Cat, the author has crafted a cinematic spy tale that is crying out for the big screen (and may in fact appear there).

Set in the aftermath of World War II in a Europe overrun by the Red Army, Quinn’s gift is to tell a you-are-there tale of a disastrous Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) mission into the heart of the Eastern front, which unexpectedly comes back to haunt him over a decade after it ends.

But first Dunne and his compatriot Dick Van Hull (who can find poetry in even the most extreme situation) volunteer for a dangerous mission behind enemy lines, with a plan to rescue a team of OSS officers who have been trying to help the Czech resistance.

Along the way Quinn, who can make history blaze to life in a paragraph, tells the fascinating story of the immediate aftermath of the Nazi nightmare, sending Dunne to the epic rally grounds drafted by Albert Speer, where eight years earlier Hitler had incited Germany to wage unprecedented slaughter.

Collapse and crisis haunt Europe and every page of Dry Bones, as do the endless pyres of the innocent dead, in a tale that begins to put quotation marks around the “greatest generation.”

As they embark on their secret mission Dunne and Van Hull uncover a shocking secret involving a Nazi doctor nicknamed the Blue Devil that changes both of their lives. But with military forces closing in their daring plan unspools, and Dunne’s participation ends with typhus and a broken ankle.

A discovery this shocking isn’t likely to stay interred of course, and 10 years later Dunne’s past catches up with him. Into his life comes the razor sharp and delightfully eccentric Turlough Bassante, with new information about the Blue Devil.

In recent years we have had many memorable illustrations of the dangers of becoming the thing we originally opposed. What we call a concern for national security, we are continually discovering, can actually just be an expression of our fear.

In Dry Bones that illustration is named Dr. Karsten Heinz, the escaped war criminal who once supervised terrifying medical experiments on helpless concentration camp victims.

Ten years later Dunne discovers that Heinz and many other former Nazi scientists and technicians are being imported by the U.S. government to help in the new fight, which this time is against communism.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, the old adage says. But even when he’s a Nazi? Surely that’s a bridge too far?

How could the men hand picked by Hitler to torment and kill millions be awarded with highly paid new careers in America? Doesn’t that mean collusion at some level? Doesn’t that infer that you are in some way becoming the foul enemy you originally opposed?

There are hard questions asked in Dry Bones, in a tale that unfolds against the backdrop of silent witnesses to the charnel house that was the 20th century -- the men women and children who make up the countless dead.

In Quinn’s book, as in life, good men don’t always make good. Van Hull is diminished by what he witnesses, becoming a shadow of his former self when Dunne meets him 10 years later.
By 1958 things have changed for both men, but when an old crony emerges with information on Heinz’s whereabouts the tale really hits high gear.

In prose clear as cut glass Quinn shows us, with judicious restraint, just how connected the human family is, with increasingly unnerving implications. The Irish have a saying, we all live in each other’s shadow, and in Dry Bones this double-edged awareness is at the center of his tale.

Quinn takes us back into the shocking, chaotic and lethally dangerous months after World War II in Europe and shows himself to be the ideal tour guide. After the bombing of Nuremburg, with the absurdity and hubris of Nazism finally interred, real justice is still elusive and may always remain so.

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