What’s in your haversack? A few of the best World War II novels
One of the problems with creating a list of best World War II novels is that it can vary according to what we’re in the mood to read. Sometimes we feel like steak, and sometimes we feel like shrimp. Sometimes we feel like an action novel, and sometimes we feel all into espionage. I can also think of a few authors whom I wished wrote WWII stories: Bernard Cornwell for starters, and maybe even John Sandford. Here are a few favorites that never disappoint when in the mood for a good WWII story that you can sink your teeth into.
EYE OF THE NEEDLE by Ken Follett
*Spoiler alert. This novel features a German agent who just so happens to be a diabolical and ruthless killer, pursued by an interesting British sleuth, and ultimately brought to ground by the wife of a sheep farmer. Although this novel is set in WWII, the espionage factor here is really secondary to the fact that this is a ripping good pyschological thriller. I keep a battered copy on my desk and dip into it from time to time when I need a good shudder.
THE EAGLE HAS LANDED by Jack Higgins
This is a novel that I read way back in high school, and wrote a book report for in Mrs. Hawk’s English class. A WWII action thriller not apparently not the sort of novel she had in mind for a book report, and I think I got a B-, but the novel itself deserves an A. The plot centers around a crack team of German commandos who parachute into England to assassinate Winston Churchill. * Spoiler alert. Of course, we readers know from the outset that Churchill was not assassinated. What makes this book so intriguing is that because it is written from the perspective of the German commandos and IRA operative Liam Devlin, it’s not the German soldiers who are the bad guys, but the English.
WAR OF THE RATS by David L. Robbins
Hands down one of the best sniper tales ever written, with one of the bleakest settings, this novel tells the story of real-life Russian sniper Vasily Zaitsev at the battle of Stalingrad. Like Dunkirk or Kursk, Stalingrad was a battle that did not involve Americans, so on the whole we don’t know much about it. Suffice it to say that the title is apt, considering that German and Russian snipers fight a vicious battle through the ruined city on the Volga River. You may be familiar with the similar story told in the film, ENEMY AT THE GATES, but what makes this sniper novel so much better is the POV glimpse into the minds of these urban hunters. Zaitsev’s nemesis is a German sniper sent to eliminate him, resulting in a tense game of cat and mouse between the two marksmen while a much larger battles rages around them.
THE UNLIKELY SPY by Daniel Silva
This best-selling author is best-known for his series featuring Israeli assassin Gabriel Allon, but my introduction to Silva was this early WWII espionage novel. The title seems better suited to a cozy mystery than to a high stakes thriller wrapped around the war of deception surrounding the D-Day invasion, but this story twists and turns like a rat’s maze to the point that you don’t know who to trust. The main character is an “everyman” college professor thrust into the high stakes game of winning the war.
SNIPER’S HONOR by Stephen Hunter
This novel has one of my favorite chapter openings, “He was an old man in a dry month.” But not too old or too dry, as it turns out. Set with alternating viewpoints in the WWII past and the present day, this thriller features the well-known sniper Bob Lee Swagger, this time on the trail of a little-known WWII female Russian sniper. Not everyone is happy about Swagger’s pursuit of the past and these malevolent forces try to stop him, violently. Anyone familiar with Swagger knows how that turns out for the bad guys. For me as a reader, what makes this novel fascinating is the storyline about the female Russian sniper sent to assassinate a nefarious German leader. Tthe German parachutists depicted in the novel, on whom much of the WWII story also focuses, are reminiscent of those in THE EAGLE HAS LANDED. Tough and competent, they are basically decent men with no choice but to serve a very bad cause.
Read those best World War II novels? Other suggestions for best World War II novels would include books by Jeff Shaara, Alistair MacLean, Steven Pressfield, William Peter Grasso, Griff Hosker, Mark Ellis, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Robert Harris.