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H L Humes: The Underground City

Humes’ novel opens in post-war Paris. Dujardin, a former collaborator, has been on trial for his alleged role in a massacre of a French village during the War. Major John Stone, an American, testified against him and he was condemned. Stone, born Giovanni Sasso (which translates literally as John Stone) in Trenton, had two talents as a child. He was a very competent linguist and a skilled cellist. When he won a cello competition, he was sent to Paris to study. He returned home when his mother was ill – she died before he arrived home and he stayed there, even after his father lost everything in the Wall Street Crash. He gave up his music though, after studying and becoming a teacher, he took it up again as a high school bandmaster. When France fell to the Germans, he joined the army. After the war he worked in France for the US Graves Commission, as a civilian.

The novel starts both with the Dujardin affair and Stone’s background. Dujardin had allegedly been responsible for the massacre of an entire village. He had been arrested by the Americans and confessed. His trial was straightforward and he was condemned. However, he later claimed that the confession had been beaten out of him by the Americans. When the issue was picked up by a French Deputy (member of parliament) it became news and the Communists exploited it to attack the government. Stone had been one of the key witnesses. Twelve prisoners were handed over to the SS (allegedly by Dujardin). Ten bodies were found. The eleventh was Stone, who had managed to escape. It was alleged that the twelfth may have been the informer or an American or both. Rumours ran through Paris about Stone’s role in the whole affair.

The novel tells of both the subsequent investigation into the whole affair as well as of the events leading up to the massacre. Stone is caught between two forces. On the one hand, there is the American right-wing who are, by now, ratcheting up their anti-communist crusade. On the other hand are the French communists who are not concerned too much with fairness and justice but, primarily, with attacking the French government. Stone is pragmatic. During the war, he was concerned about getting the job done and if a communist was the best man for the job, so be it. Obviously, what seemed sensible when fighting the Germans looks less so when faced by the US anti-communists. Alexi Carnot, a communist who lost an arm in the war, is being used by the communists to attack the French government but, in the war, Stone employed him and this is, of course, used against him.

Humes’ skill in this book is to show that war is not just fighting an enemy. It is not always black and white. Politics can be just as important in war as it is in peace. Critics have accused the book of being too long and, more to the point, too long-winded. At times, this may be the case but Humes clearly uses it to show in detail the very complicated scenario he is describing and he does it very well indeed. Stone is always going to be the martyr here – not the poor villagers of Monpelle, not Carnot, not Dujardin and certainly not the politicians on either side, for whom it is all little more than a game. Humes’ way of telling this story is gripping and well executed and much more interesting than Norman Mailer’s shoot-’em-up approach.

Publishing history

First published 1957 by Random House