Issues Political, Personal

A UA Italian professor spins a fine thriller out of research material for a class

Apparently, the Dutch were elated when, in 1667, the English traded them a "tropical paradise" for a cold, barren city.

The paradise became Suriname (geo quiz: Where is it?); the city, New York.

Apparently, Mussolini had a secret police force called the "OVRA," whose name even the Italians didn't know the meaning of.

Both non-paradisiacal Suriname and the residue of Mussolini's force come into play in Ron Terpening's new historical thriller, League of Shadows. A UA professor of Italian, Terpening says that the idea for this book grew out of preparation to teach a course on Mussolini and Fascism, and it's rich with archival detail.

League of Shadows has a double-plot--one set in the contemporary United States, South America and Italy; the other, in Fascist Italy. It also has multiple openings: In the first chapter, a plane carrying Dutchman Theunis Kloos, in Suriname (that's north of Brazil, by the way; formerly Dutch Guiana), is brought down by guerilla fire. In the second, an unnamed Washington businessman reflects on espionage and betrayal during World War II, and dispatches a henchman to keep his secret secret. In the next chapter, undercover cop Nick Ferron is in a Sonoran Desert stakeout, waiting to take out a Mafia boss. That's followed by a chapter set in 1943, with Italian-American Thomas Gage, dropped into Italy by the British OSS. He has been stopped by the Blackshirt militia on the Genoa-Rome road, and he's about to have his spy-mettle tested.

With that, the main players in the novel have been introduced. Within 100 pages, you'll know that cop Nick is the grandson of Gage, that Kloos is some Kurtz-like character in Suriname, and that the businessman really wants everybody else dead.

Nick's character integrates the plots, introduces a mystery and engages the action. After missing the Mafia boss takedown, Nick is put on disciplinary leave. He heads to Durango to cool off near his sister and grandfather, but finds that his grandfather has gone missing. Soon after that, sheriff's men identify a body found in a burned-out mountain stable as his grandfather's.

When a buddy of his grandfather passes a trunk of papers over to Nick, and Nick begins to read Gage's war diary, he recognizes that someone betrayed Allied spies in Italy, and that his grandfather's is not the only life that might be lost. Nick takes off for Suriname. Before this is over, he'll have seen gunfire there, in Italy and outside Washington, D.C. In the course of his investigation, Nick discovers that--unlike in Germany, with its Nuremberg trials--Italy pacified its people rather than purge it of Fascist officials.

The issues that Terpening raises in League of Shadows are a mix of personal and historical-political. Central is a father-son conflict. Nick's love for his grandfather is barely balanced by his hatred for his father. Flashes of childhood abuse surface, and he's haunted by the fact that--since his father had been knifed to death in prison--Nick couldn't himself kill him.

In a thematic echo, Theunis Kloos has an estranged daughter, Kristine, a leader in a guerilla group seeking to overthrow the government. When Nick attempts to meet with Kloos in his Suriname jungle fortress, Kristine facilitates it--for her cause's sake more than for Nick's.

Complex and troubling are questions Terpening raises of Italian Fascism and its remnants after the war. He uses as a plot-generator a list of Nazi sympathizers, collaborators, agents, etc. That they might be respected members of society leaves them open to blackmail. Inappropriate U.S. (read Reagan and CIA) behavior regarding South America is hinted at, as well. The fictional Washington businessman promises to benefit from political instability, and the U.S.-friendly government supported by extortionist Kloos is corrupt.

But don't think this book needs to be anything beyond a good thriller--and it is that. It engages us in both protagonists--Nick in the present, and his young Thomas Gage in the past. Fascist Italy is chilling; the present's full of machineguns, caimans and car-chases.

Terpening clearly had tons of material. If, in foregrounding one action, he stretches a thread or two, we can overlook it--as there's plenty going on. His settings are vivid, his pace fast, and his narrative's gripping. And--bene--the language professor even pushes us to figure out a Dutch or Italian word or two.

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