Venlo, Falconer, Cheever, and on!

For the military studies roundup that was posted yesterday (click here for it) in LJ‘s April 1 issue, I provided exactly one book review, with  Edwin Burgess, director of the Combined Arms Research Library at Fort Leavenworth, one of LJ’s contributing experts on military history, in charge of the 21 other assessments.

My review there is of The Venlo Incident: A True Story of Double-Dealing, Captivity, and a Murderous Nazi Plot, by Captain S. Payne Best. It’s a World War II POW’s memoir originally published in 1950 and at last made available again in a new paperback edition. I strongly recommend it, in spite of it having no index, a situation that’s often a deal breaker for me.

Among the fellow Allied prisoners who Best writes about is one Squadron-Leader Hugh Falconer, who "had been captured three years before in Tunisia; since then he had had no news from home and his people probably thought that he had been shot. I was to see a lot of this gallant officer in the future, and shall always be grateful to him for the loyal way in which he always backed me up." (p. 169)

Reading about Falconer in this prisoner context, it made me wonder whether John Cheever, in his late thirties, may have read the first edition of Capt. Best’s book and filed away that prisoner name Falconer in his head, to revive it years later as the name of the prison itself, and the title of his book, Falconer

Blake Bailey’s marvelous Cheever: A Life (Knopf), which just won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, has much on the genesis of Cheever’s Falconer, but not about how it came to be titled.  With no proof whatsoever, I’m feeling as if I’ve come on one of the hidden streams that flow between life and fiction!  

And Squadron-Leader Hugh Falconer must surely have been a descendant of the 19th-century Scottish scientist of the same name, a man who was a geologist, botanist, and paleontologist —  those were the days for unbridled science!
Which brings me to the recent NBCC winner for nonfiction, Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Knopf). Holmes engagingly tells of the heady era bracketed by the 1769 voyage of James Cook and the 1831 voyage on the Beagle of the young Charles Darwin.  Years later, the 19th-century Falconer, as vice-president of the Royal Society, lobbied on behalf of the society’s Copley Medal going to Charles Darwin. 

 So! From a World War II POW memoir to Cheever’s Falconer to the NBCC awards for biography and nonfiction!  The joys of reading!

Margaret Heilbrun About Margaret Heilbrun

Margaret Heilbrun is a former Senior Editor, Library Journal Book Review.


  1. Ron Shank says:

    Bring it to us, Margaret! Fascinating.

  2. Archie Lasky says:

    Exceedingly post you got here. As a blogger to another one, I recognise how challenging and how much time it takes to come up something tangible and good. You have my respect.