Book: The Splendid and the Vile

Author: Erik Larson

Review by: Dr. Bruce S. Allen, honorary consul of the Principality of Liechtenstein in Georgia

Dr. Bruce S. Allen

Oh no, not another book about Winston Churchill and World War II.   

Those who read these pages every year will not be surprised to see me review yet another book about these topics. But The Splendid and the Vile proves yet again, and in a new way, that there is no end to what one can learn about this defining 20th-century conflict with the appropriate lens and narrative framing.  

Author Erik Larson has finally given the reader what we all look for in a history book — the back stories of those who prosecuted and experienced the war — from the main historical protagonists and their loved ones and colleagues to the man and woman on the street, from the rich and privileged to the poor and downtrodden.  

The book is packed with little-known facts that serve as descriptors for the experience of war: the bombs’ smell, sound and the color they cast; what it is like to live two years in a blackout so dark that people sometimes walked into poles on their way home from work.  

It also clearly depicts the mental struggles that Churchill’s family and associates dealt with daily in such a horrible time and offers a side-by-side comparison of what was going on in London, Berlin, and Washington on the very same days.

I especially liked the way Larson used small chapters, sometimes only two or three pages, to keep the book fast moving and easily readable.  

But for me the best parts of the book were the fact-filled personal side stories, such as the love affair between Pamela Churchill and Averell Harriman, or the revelation that Lord Beaverbrook sent 14 letters of resignation to the prime minister only to have them refused — still he doubled fighter production in only three months. Larson also cites letters from Mary Churchill’s diary as she turned 18, transforming from a care-free child to a woman commanding an anti-aircraft battery of all women. 

And then there are the stories of “Jock” Coville, Winston’s personal secretary, and what he endured to serve his country, along with the ill-fated flight to Scotland by Rudolph Hess, and many other lesser-known tales from this terrible time.  

These tales give us a glimpse at how others survived a global catastrophe, perhaps helping us understand our own capacity for resilience during this trying pandemic era. Kudos to Larson for this fine work. 

Read previous reviews by Dr. Allen: 

Books 2019: Are the United States and China Destined for War?

Books 2018: Chasing Mussolini’s Lost Bugattis Through Ethiopia

Books 2017: The Artful Story of a Gentleman in Moscow

Books 2016: The Female War Correspondent the U.S. Forgot

Books 2015: America’s Fertile 19th-Century Relations With France

Books 2014: The Assassination of the Archduke

Books 2013: A Tale of Two Presidents, the Press and a Polarized Nation

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Each year, Global Atlanta asks influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued annually since 2010. 

See last year’s full list of books on BookShop here, and all 2020 reader picks here. 

All books were chosen and reviews written independently, with only mild editing from our staff.