In this story from Inner Europe John Howard lightens the mood a little. Again, the setting is between the wars, and there's a distinct whiff of Hercule Poirot about some aspects of the tale - only this mystery is not a crime to be solved, but something more elusive.
We find ourselves in the company of J. Garrick Soames, a British travel writer. He takes the Orient Express to Sofia, where he is privileged to interview the King (or Tsar, more properly) of Bulgaria. Boris III was unusually able ruler by the standards of Balkan royalty and, at least at first, succeeded in keeping his country relatively free and tolerant. The rise of the Third Reich led to a German alliance that was, at first, almost entirely symbolic. Boris opposed anti-Jewish measures, refused to send troops to fight the USSR, and it is widely believed he was murdered by Nazi agents.
Grim stuff indeed. But it is a different aspect of his life that Howard explores. Boris III was a railway enthusiast and, as King/Tsar, could play with the biggest train set possible. At once point the writer sees a strange vision of Boris as, by turns, a decent working man, a nondescript failure, and an idealised monarch. Boris is at once all of these things, and none of them. He is a both ruler and victim.
The train driver - in complete charge, but in practice constrained by rails to a very limited route - sums up the monarch's predicament. 'Is anyone, ever, really in control?' asks Soames. I doubt it.
More on this dual-author collection very soon.