The Second Midnight

Written by Andrew Taylor
Review by Waheed Rabbani

When a British intelligence officer is murdered by the Gestapo in 1939, an eccentric English businessman, Alfred Kendall, is recruited for a minor assignment in Prague. Kendall has a predicament in leaving his reckless twelve-year-old son, Hugh, at home, so accepts on the condition that Hugh accompanies him. When Hitler invades Czechoslovakia, Kendall’s mission goes awry. The Czech resistance helps him flee back to England, but he leaves Hugh behind at their behest. Hugh spends the next few years with the Resistance, dodging the Gestapo, and he miraculously saves the life of a “good” Nazi, Colonel Scholl. Taking pity on Hugh, Scholl hires him as his gardener’s assistant. Soon, the Colonel’s daughter, Magda, and Hugh fall in love. Later, her brother, Heinz, becomes suspicious when Scholl dies. Heinz blames Hugh and vows revenge. Even though WWII ends, Magda’s, Heinz’s and Hugh’s paths will cross again.

This compactly written novel covers a family’s saga during the long WWII years and continues the story well into the Cold War era. While the book weaves some of the events of that period’s conflicts into the plot, the fast-paced narrative, involving a vast cast of characters, feels less than satisfactory, especially compared to the works of Ken Follett and Herman Wouk, who have covered this era in several well-received volumes. Hugh seems much older than his age, as some of his exploits to survive during the war require much suspension of disbelief.

However, the novel has a useful review of WWII incidents, particularly in Czechoslovakia. The occurrence of the second midnight—the time when a slower clock chimes after a faster one—is interestingly presented and appears in several scenes. The oddity it creates serves as a metaphor for second chances, which some of the characters hope for, such as Kendall’s justification for leaving his young son behind in war-torn Europe.