Review: Gordon Ferris – Pilgrim Soul

Pilgrim SoulI was in the middle of reading Pilgrim Soul by Gordon Ferris when it was announced that the novel had reached the shortlist of the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award for 2013. It’s come as no surprise that such a well written and interesting book should have caught the judges’ eye. I feel I’ve come late to Ferris’s books. Pilgrim Soul is the third in the series featuring journalist Douglas Brodie and I suspect that the author already has a dedicated following. Although I’ve read a lot of books set in the post-war period, and am familiar with the story of ‘ratlines’ that existed to smuggle Nazi criminals out of Germany, this is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject.

Brodie is an ex-policeman turned journalist who is asked by the Jewish community in Glasgow to solve a series of burglaries. His initial investigations become chaotic when the thief, Paddy Craven, is murdered by a householder. Craven was taking gold to a Jewish pawnbroker who is convinced that some of the items came from the bodies of people killed in the extermination camps. Brodie suspects that a ‘ratline’ is going through Glasgow and he is recruited by MI5 back into his former army division and asked to attend Nazi trials taking place in Hamburg. Unhappy at revisiting the horrors he experienced after the liberation of Belsen, he nevertheless attends the interviews with prisoners which confirm the existence of an escape route taking Nazi’s off the continent, via Scotland and on to South America. Back in Glasgow, Brodie is determined to find the local contacts in the escape chain but his efforts are hampered by the Jewish population of the city whowant to mete out their own form of retribution.

Fans of Aly Monroe’s Peter Cotton series will love this book. You get the same sense of post-war austerity with the bitterly cold winter and the shadow of the past looming over ordinary people’s attempts to carry on with their lives. Douglas Brodie is a strong character. There’s a sense of damage, only natural considering what he has experienced, which manifests itself in stressful situations as barely repressed violence. His girlfriend (and landlady), Samantha Campbell, is a fascinating character. A lawyer, she refuses to get married as it will destroy her career, and through working on the Hamburg trials, she is struggling with her own horror at the emerging stories. Particularly shocking in the book is the role of women, both in policing the camps and in the ratlines. It throws up once again the question of why, when women participate in despicable acts, it seems so much worse.

The post-war Jewish community in Glasgow is something I knew little about and it is brought to life here. The book is a very strong read and well deserving of its place on the Historical Dagger short-list. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for it.

Thanks to Atlantic for my copy of the book.

19 thoughts on “Review: Gordon Ferris – Pilgrim Soul

  1. Oh that sounds riveting Sarah! Gordon Ferris has been below my radar up till now, but I very much like the sound of this book, and shall add it to my list.


  2. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – This sounds like an absolutely fascinating novel. I think it’s easy to forget how difficult those post-war years were for everyone, and it’s good to hear Ferris portrays that authentically. And the Holocaust left so many deep scars (they’re still there for a lot of people); it’s a really effective context for a story.


  3. I came across a review for this book having never before heard of Ferris and was completely blown away by it. He is, I think, one of the strongest writers in any genre that I’ve come across in a long time. I’ve gone back and read the earlier two books and they are, if not equally as strong, indicative of a writer growing in strength with every novel. I can’t wait to see where he goes from here. By the way, Aly Munroe is not an author I know so I’m off now to investigate.


  4. Sarah, thanks for bringing this series back to my attention. Glad to hear that you liked this book so much. I have been aware of it, read reviews of the earlier books, and not been quite sure about it. The time period is my favorite to read about. I think I will put this author on my book sale list (for September), although the Kindle version is a decent price here. Ah the agonies of book lust. I have been much less controlled in book buying this year.


  5. This sounds like a good one to recommend to readers who think they don’t like crime fiction because it’s not well written. I’d heard of another book called Rat Lines, but I didn’t actually know what they were.


  6. kathy d.

    I’d really like to read this book although I hate reading about WWII horrors. It’s so overwhelming to revisit these atrocities.

    However, I am reading Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night, a brilliant book full of history, philosophy, poignancy and a lot of Jewish humor. This is a tragi-comedy in the best sense. I laughed for 25 pages or so; now I’m crying. The author is brilliant to be able to weave so much together seamlessly.

    I don’t think women’s actions in the camps were worse than men’s. Perhaps it’s because women are seen as mothers and empathic that it’s shocking to hear of women going along with the atrocities. But women were swept up in the same propaganda and war machine in nazi Germany as the men.

    Thanksfully, and this is often omitted, there was resistance inside Germany of all types from outright sabotage to leafletting. A New York Times article a few years ago told of 800,000 political prisoners inside German jails during the war. This shows resistance. As Margareta Von Trotta showed in her movie about Rosenstrasse Street, women protested every day to get their Jewish husbands out of a detention center, and they achieved that — even against nazi machine gun threats.

    Anyway, I’ll think about whether I can read this book.


    1. Thanks Kathy. Agree that it just *seems* worse when women get involved in extreme violence. I’m glad you’re enjoying ‘Norwegian by Night’. It’s on my list to read. Interesting about resistance inside Germany. I’m not sure it was as widespread as people make out. I’m a big fan of Gitta Sereny’s work. She died recently but she wrote some excellent books on Germany during the Nazi rise to power which pose interesting questions about collusion.


  7. Another one to add to the pile. I’ve read the Hanging Shed, but not the second. I might skip that and go straight to this (although maybe as kindle or wait for the paperback as I’ve spend a fortune of 2013 hardback releases so far this year).


    1. I haven;t bought so many HBs this year Rob although I always have plenty of books to read (including yours this month!). Glad you’re another Ferris fan.


  8. Pingback: The Best of June’s Reading | crimepieces

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