On March 22, 1945 Major Max Hignite flew his last Luftwaffe mission; a flight to Switzerland in a Ju-52 loaded with artwork stolen by the Nazis. The plane crashed and was sealed in a cave by a Swiss lake. Hignite, badly injured, survived. Rescued by local Swiss, he spent months near death in a hospital. By the time he recovered, the Ju-52 had disappeared. Only Hignite was aware of its contents. He decided to move on with his life.
So opens Ghosts of the Past, a novel by Mark H. Downer. For Hignite, moving on included going to the United States after the war ended and joining family who emigrated to the US in the 1930s. In Spring 2001, Hignite is dying. He passes his final flight’s secret to his favorite grandnephew, Matt Ferguson. Matt inherits the aircraft’s manifest cargo and a map showing where it crashed.
Matt, who is in a well-paying but dull job, decides to recover the treasure as a one-off adventure. Since he is Max Hignite’s executor, Matt uses “settling his grand-uncle’s estate” as an excuse to take a leave of absence from his job.
Yet the path to this legacy proves perilous. Uncle Max was under observation by former SS members. They intended the cargo to be part of the means to finance their post-war escapes. Their escape network, designed to hide their identities, has grown into a powerful and wealthy crime organization. Matt inadvertently uses one of their agents to translates Max’s writings to English, and they are now after Matt.
Worse, a drug cartel also learns of the discovery. They also want the money they could get from selling the paintings. For them, finding Matt is the first step to finding the Ju-52.
Both groups of criminals will, and do, kill. Matt escapes one attempt through good fortune, only to stumble into an attempt to kill art historian Courtney Lewis (who helped identify the paintings and who Matt suspected set the first assassin on him). Soon she and Matt are off to Switzerland one step ahead of two competing criminal gangs and the police–for whom Matt and Courtney themselves are subjects of interest in the murders.
Ghosts of the Past, has a few bumps (including a somewhat deus ex machina ending). Yet Downer has written an exciting thriller. Readers will forgive its few weaknesses, given its fast-paced, virtually non-stop action mixed with a dash of romance. It is a fun read, set in the carefree months before the September 11 attacks changed everything.
“Ghosts of the Past,” by Mark H.Downer, Old Stone Press, 2021, 332 pages, $16.95 (Paperback) $4.99 (Ebook)
*Mark Lardas is an engineer, freelance writer, historian and model-maker living in Texas. Mark posts on Ricochet as “Seawriter,” and is well-known for his regular and much appreciated reviews of books on all subjects. Of his reviews, he says “I have an unusual approach to reviewing books. I review books I feel merit a review. Each review is an opportunity to recommend a book. If I do not think a book is worth reading, I find another book to review.” His website is marklardas.com.