What’s on this week
It’s probably fair to say that never before in the field of literature has one of the main protagonists of a novel been inspired to make a crucial journey by reading a brief report of an Argentinian Turismo Carretera race in a 1954 copy of Autosport, left in the waiting room of a Welsh doctor’s surgery. So for that reason alone, Mike Breslin’s latest thriller, Faster than the Bullet, was always going to get a thumbs-up from us. But the fact that we’re already gripped by the time this pivotal moment occurs on page 258 indicates the success of Breslin’s tale.
London-based Welshman Breslin’s byline has already appeared in this title – he was our Pembrey contributor back in the day, after competing in Formula Ford 1600 in the 1980s. Faster than the Bullet is his third novel, six years after his intriguing Pieces of Silver, which told the story of Englishman Westbury Holt (a kind of fictional Richard Seaman) as he tried to establish himself as a 1930s grand prix hero in the Nazi-funded Silver Arrows.
The new offering moves slightly further forward in time, and is based around Ingo Six, a reluctant Nazi who joins the German army at the start of the Second World War because he’s addicted to speed and wants to spend a few years riding military motorcycles around at maximum velocity. No one expects the war to last beyond a few months, and Six fully intends to serve his time without harming another human being. And this is one of the appealing tenets of this book. History, they say, is written by the winners, and we’re used to Germans being portrayed as cold-blooded, orderobeying automatons. But, much as in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Breslin’s novel includes characters who have grave reservations about the direction in which they were heading.
Six’s friendship with an army comrade nicknamed Pop, an older man who has proved himself as a competent if not particularly talented racer of motorcycles and cars in the 1930s, is multidimensional. Pop gives the benefit of his experience in calming down Six’s exuberant style, and stands up for Six when he is in trouble with their commander, the odious and psychotic Feldwebel Kroh, for his reluctance to kill and for his taboo romance with Lidka Wadalowska, a woman he meets in occupied Warsaw.
The novel flits between Ingo’s and Lidka’s war experiences and a decade later, when Ingo is leading a solitary existence in the remote Argentinian countryside with a new identity as Enrique Hohberg. There is a parallel narrative of revenge attacks on Nazis carried out by the intriguing Sarah Malka, and you wonder whether she will come after him, but he also seems to be hiding from his own wartime past, which has clearly scarred him. Here, Breslin provides harrowing detail of the German attack on the Russian front and the butchery of the appalling Nazi reprisals to the Warsaw Uprising.
‘Hohberg’ befriends local garage owner and ex-racer Carlo Rossi, who becomes amazed at the driving talent of this enigmatic loner. Thanks to Rossi’s support, Hohberg becomes the new ‘Argentinian’ star and, with finance from a pompous local businessman, plans are laid for him to compete in the 1954 Mille Miglia in the patriotic new Varela Condor sportscar, and take on the Ferraris and Maseratis.
But that’s only one dimension of this novel. It may have a racing context, and the account of the progress in the Mille Miglia is compelling, but so too is the story of wartime Warsaw lives. Breslin has come up with a winner – a thriller with more surprise twists than the Futa and Raticosa passes.