Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook contains all the ingredients of a good spy novel: dark secrets, furtive meetings, shadowy characters, perils and betrayals. But author Celia Rees blends in extras: coded messages hidden in food recipes, plus a haunting portrait of post-war Germany with its starving survivors, homeless refugees, and unrepentant Nazis.
On New Year’s Eve 1945, British school mistress Edith Graham commits herself to helping the occupying forces track down her former lover Kurt von Stavenhow, accused of complicity in the SS campaign to exterminate “undesirables”. Rees builds a sense of urgency in the hunt for Hitler’s henchmen, many of whom dream of escaping justice to establish a Fourth Reich and ignite the Nazi horror once again.
“Life unworthy of life was the term they used,” says one witness to the Nazis’ cold-blooded rationale for condemning to extinction not only Jews, but the handicapped, the retarded, and the mentally ill. “Useless mouths consuming resources needed by soldiers and workers to keep the nation strong.”
Clever as she is, Edith soon finds herself entangled in a web of other agencies intent on seizing Kurt for their own purposes. A new Cold War is brewing between Russia and the West. Who can Edith trust? How much of what she learns is true?
Rees displays a solid command of the German language, and a deep sense of the nation’s fragmented social structure following the Third Reich’s collapse. Most of her characters are deftly developed and interesting, especially Dori Stansfield, a scrappy survivor, and Adeline Croft, an American war correspondent. Unfortunately, some of the minor ones don’t appear often enough to help the reader remember who they are when they resurface. There are also some opportunities to seize Kurt that seem implausibly bungled. And we get only a hint of what happens to the mysterious Leo Chase, who recruited Edith for the mission.
Interestingly, Rees does not settle for a predictable resolution to her tale. There are several surprises to suggest that while human justice may be thwarted, eventually it will be served.
Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook includes occasional instances of profanity and foul language, plus some vague but unoffensive sex scenes.