Saturday, May 30, 2015

John Connoll on Ruins of War

Today JRW welcomes John Connell, who provides a bookend to Memorial Day week. His first novel RUINS OF WAR features Chief Warrant Officer Mason Collins—former Chicago homicide detective, U.S. soldier, prisoner of war, and now U.S. Army criminal investigator in the American Zone of Occupation in Munich. At a time when the worst horrors of the war are coming to light, there is another horror that is running rampant in the street. Welcome John!

JOHN CONNELL: I can be counted in the first wave of baby boomers. When I was a young boy, World War II was still a recent event. Fathers and mothers were veterans. During the war, one of my uncles was in the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, another flew B-24s as a bombardier, an uncle on my mother’s side was marine in the Pacific, and my father was a Navy pilot. I salute all war veterans, but because of my uncles’ and father’s involvement, I have a deep emotional attachment to World War II.

I’ve read war memoirs and watched every WWII movie that has hit the big and small screen. I felt I knew quite a bit about the years leading to war and the war itself, but while I was researching the backstory of a villain in an earlier—now defunct—novel, I discovered the startling and dramatic history of the war’s aftermath. Germany was devastated by three years of constant bombings. Every city and most towns, bridges, railroads and factories were all in ruins. A majority of German men between 18 and 50 were either wounded, killed or in allied POW camps. It was the women who had to clear the rubble and scrounge for food for their families by any means necessary. The Allied occupiers had no idea how to deal with a country in such chaos and deprivation. Most wanted revenge, to reduce Germany to nothing but farmland. A typical American or British soldier could barter for almost anything with a single pack of cigarettes. The black market thrived, and gangs of deserted allied soldiers, former POWs and corrupt DPs roamed the countryside. I just had to create a story during that turbulent time, and what came out of that idea is “Ruins of War.”

I imagined a war veteran in that post-war cauldron of chaos and deprivation. U.S. Army criminal investigator Mason Collins not only experienced the brutal fighting on the front lines, but also suffered as a prisoner of war at the hands of the Nazis. He is of German birth and bitter towards the German people for supporting an evil regime. But when a psychotic killer begins butchering innocent civilians, Mason now feels compelled to protect these same people from another kind of evil, one spawned from the horrors of war. I wanted to watch him squirm when he has to work with the German police, or when he steps into the gates of a former Nazi concentration camp to coax information from Nazi doctors who conducted inhuman medical experiments on camp inmates. I wanted to push him to his limits and see if comes out intact at the end. I kept a Hemingway quote in mind for inspiration: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.”

Just as the allied armies struggled with peace, I wanted Mason to go through a similar transformation. To be forced to question his prejudice, to recover from the mental wounds of war, to struggle to find a way to survive in peace as much as he survived in war. Warriors must become citizens once the fighting has ceased, but many times that transition is difficult. My father and uncles made it home, but one did not survive the transition. And Mason won’t and shouldn’t resolve all his mental wounds—what we know as PSTD today—in the short span that occurs in this story, but he will, at least, have been shown a path to recovery.

May all veterans find their way home and survive in peace as they did in war.

QUESTION for readers:

What book, fiction or non-fiction, have you found that best illustrates a veteran’s struggle to transition from warrior to citizen?

John A. Connell is the author of the historical fiction thriller “Ruins of War” published by Berkley/Penguin Books. He
has worked as a cameraman on films such as Jurassic Park and Thelma & Louise and on TV shows including The Practice and NYPD Blue. He now lives with his wife in Paris, France, where he is at work on his second Mason Collins novel. Read more at his website.


  1. First and foremost, thank you to your family for their service.
    The aftermath of war . . . “The Road Back,” the sequel to Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Hoge’s “Once a Warrior--Always a Warrior” are a couple that come immediately to mind for illustrating the veteran’s struggle to transition from warrior to citizen.
    I’m lookin forward to reading “Ruins of War” . . . .

  2. Welcome, John! And, yes, thanks to your family for their service. The transition from war to peace — fascinating stuff. Curious — what made you pick the city of Munich and not Berlin?

  3. War is a powerful catalyst for fiction. The aftermath of war is a theme that echoes through crime fiction. Guessing I first encountered it reading the Peter Wimsey novels. Fast forward to Harry Bosch and Maisie Dobbs and Russ Van Alstyne and on and on it goes.

  4. John, I salute your family's service, and kudos to you for shining a light on a little-known part of the story of WWII. I have seen that transition from warrior to citizen played out in my own family--no need to look to fiction or non-fiction.

  5. Oh, so lovely and touching to read this. Thank you--and and thank you for that moment of remembrance.

    And what a wonderful question.

    The Todd's inspector Rutledge, certainly. And though it's different, I can never forget What They Carried.

  6. Hi John! What a beautiful post. I'm fascinated by the idea of setting a book in post-war Germany, and I know Munich a little so doubly interested. As for fictional characters who have made the transition from war to peace, I will echo the above comments. Peter Wimsey made a huge impression on me when I first read Dorothy Sayers. It was my first introduction to shell shock/PTSD. Both Russ and Clare in Julia's books. Maisie Dobbs. And of course Ian Rutledge.

  7. To answer the question at the end, Julia's novel, One Was a Soldier, was a fantastic book to show the different ways veterans of Iraq dealt with adjustment or maladjustment to civilian life after their service. I thought that Julia did it so right, not just having Clare come home and go on with Russ, but to show her struggles with putting Iraq behind her.

    Hank, I've been wanting to read The Things They Carried for the longest time. Hoping this year I'll get to it.

    It's interesting to me that growing up with Viet Nam and having the Iraq and Afghanistan wars happen when I was an adult, that I've been used to hearing about soldiers struggling with return to civilian life. But, I had never much thought about the aftermath of WWII in the "enemy" countries. That changed seven years ago when I read Joseph Kanon's novel, The Good German, set in post WWII Berlin in 1945, a scene of bombed-out buildings and people scrabbling to put their lives back together, to forget choices they had made for the sake of survival. It also highlights the competition between the Americans and the Russians, the tense dual authorities. In Kanon's latest, Leaving Berlin (out this spring), it is four years after the war, 1949, and the Cold War has begun, with East and West Berlin in opposing corners. Oh, I'd like to caution readers of The Good German not to see the atrocity of a movie that was made based (loosely) on it. The movie took everything that was special and meaningful in the book and trashed it.

    Now, I come to the guest today, John Connoll. John, I am so excited to come across you and your novel, Ruins of War, set in post-war Munich. Sometimes a book comes along that you realize you've been waiting for, and Ruins of War certainly has that feel for me. So, thank you for visiting the Reds today and giving me a book to look forward to. And, I'm thankful for your family's service.

    Oh, one more quick item. Hank mentioned the beautiful cover, and I agree. In fact, when I was looking at it, I was wondering how much input you had into the cover's conception. I've had some authors tell me that they have no control over the covers for their books, and others have ensured a special touch to their covers. Your cover looks like it involved great thought and care, so I'd like to know if you were allowed creative input.

  8. Thank you all for your wonderful comments. I apologize coming late to this comment section. I had a family emergency yesterday - fortunately the crisis has subsided, but it took up most of my day yesterday.

    To answer some of your questions:
    I chose Munich for several reasons. First, I really love Munich. Also, Berlin has served as the backdrop for many works of fiction, so I wanted to shine the light on a lesser-known location. And Berlin, though divided up by the four Allied powers, it was in the Russian zone of occupation, while Munich was in the American zone. I wanted to reflect the realities of the American zone in general, and Munich served that purpose very well.

    Berkley did a great job with the cover. They sent me the art and asked my opinion, and since I was delighted, I can't claim any part in such a great design. I did have a little more input on the cover for book #2 in the Mason Collins series, which comes out February 2, 2016.

    What a great list of other "coming home" books. I've read some of them, but I have to check out the others!

    Thank you all, again, for your wonderful comments.