The arrival of National Crime Reading Month has coincided with the completion of four years of work writing my latest crime suspense novel. Originally, it was based on the fictional memoirs of Dorota Hirsch, her time in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp and her subsequent quest to find her brother, David, whom she was separated from during the invasion of their Polish ghetto. The book, entitled The Intelligence of Ravens, centred on Dorota’s search for David, but editorial advice suggested that David’s own story might be just as intriguing. At the time, it seemed an insurmountable job to write another fifty percent, but I set to the task and the strangest thing happened; David’s story practically wrote itself.
An awful lot of research went into Dorota’s tale. Haunting statistics; did you know that the targeted groups by Hitler were Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma Gypsies, homosexuals, prostitutes, mentally and physically handicapped and beggars, as well as the Jews?
When Ravensbruck was formed in 1939 it houses 867 prisoners. By the end of the war, 132,000 were incarcerated there. An estimated 92,000 people were killed in the camp. The figures are too much to contemplate, so I’ll put it in these terms; Wembley Stadium holds 90,000 people. That is the volume of dead bodies. Plus 2000 more.
I wanted David’s story to be very different to Dorota’s, but just as harrowing. After his initial escape from the ghetto he hooks up with Marta, a worldly-wise street child, who promises him safety and sanctuary, just across the border in Germany. He is despatched to a barn in private land, deep in the forest. The barn is full of boys just like him; orphaned and alone. The boys are numbered, and every so often Marta selects one to take to ‘The Big House’, where the mysterious Leon awaits them. Leon is a loner, he is a master of the arts and houses an impressive literary collection. Leon has no friends to speak of and aside from an interfering sister who comes to the house now and then to berate him, he has no family. Leon shuns the company of others, preferring to spend his time and his wealth on young boys. I wanted desperately to write this part of the tale without too many graphic scenes, the more that is left to the reader’s imagination the better. I also wanted to ask the question; can a child love a man who has clearly done some terrible things, totally and utterly? Can the child grow into a man and still hold a torch for the person that was a suggested molester? I wanted to delve into Stockholm Syndrome, where a person identifies, sympathises and defends his captor.
David’s own adulthood goes on much in the way his childhood began. He ends up in Soho, London, finding that the freaks and transients are the only people he can really identify with. Homosexuality was punishable by prison in those days and the timeline on the decriminalisation of homosexuality is truly astounding. Great men like Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were prosecuted, the irony of imprisoning gay men in all-male institutions apparently went unnoticed. The one point of research I did use; Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis by Matt Houlbrook.
And now it is finished, waiting to fly out into the world. Originally planned to be marketed as Historical fiction, but now as a crime suspense novel, for surely if The Holocaust could be recorded as anything, it would be as one of the greatest crimes of recent History?
And my final question, one that I’m not ready to answer myself; who endured the greater crime? The boys from the barn? Or the women from Ravensbruck? Or just as equally abhorrent?
J.M Hewitt writes in the crime suspense genre and likes to combine 20th century Historical events in her novels. She has had two novels published, Freedom First Peace Later in 2010 and Worlds Apart in 2013. She has completed a third novel, The Intelligence of Ravens, and is currently working on her fourth. @jmhewitt