An idea for a novel can be sparked by reading about a person who existed in the flesh. That’s what happened when Kate Quinn, author of the breakout bestseller The Alice Network and other historical novels, came across the nonfiction story of Hermine Braunsteiner, the first Nazi war criminal to be deported from the United States to face trial in Europe for war crimes.

“She was a brutal camp guard at one of the women’s camps during the war, and decades later she was found living as an ordinary housewife in New York City–her American husband and neighbors were dumbfounded, insisting that she was a gentle woman who wouldn’t hurt a fly,” said Quinn in an interview with BookTrib. “I wondered immediately “What would it be like to discover that a family member–someone you loved, lived with for years, thought you knew intimately–had such a past?”

The result of Quinn asking herself this question is the much-anticipated historical thriller The Huntress (William Morrow), which is partly based on Braunsteiner and the team of Nazi hunters tracking her down, but also the lives of the Night Witches, Russia’s all-female regiment of bomber pilots who flew against Hitler’s eastern front.

The book also flies against many readers’ expectations, with the hunter and hunted roles continuously shifting. The storyline shifts through Russia before the outbreak of World War II, the awful depths of the war in Russia and Poland, postwar France, and finally a community in New England that unknowingly harbors a war criminal.  As the threads come together in a masterful climax, the suspense of The Huntress ratchets up to a nearly unbearable level.

But the book is also a serious exploration of unconscionable actions during World War II. Quinn says, “I did a lot of thinking for this book about the fine line between justice and vengeance. When gripped by the kind of epic rage that is triggered by the horrors of the Holocaust and other terrible crimes against humanity, it’s easy to sympathize with an ‘ends justify the means’ approach to accused war criminals–and I think that some ends do justify the means.

“But true justice ultimately means the chance for a fair trial, to ensure that a witch-hunt mentality doesn’t condemn the innocent and to make sure the guilty can be punished appropriately to the scale of their crimes. The characters in The Huntress argue passionately about what lines can be crossed in the pursuit of war criminals, and what lines cannot and should not be crossed because then you risk committing evil in pursuit of evil.” 

In a book brimming with fascinating characters, perhaps the standout is Nina, the female fighter pilot who is the only “target” to escape the lethal war criminal nicknamed the Huntress, also known as Lorelei Vogt, mistress of an S.S. officer. Quinn admits, “Nina the Night Witch pilot nearly took over the book from me–I have rarely had a character speak to me that strongly as I wrote. I adored writing her, outlandish as she is.”

To research the character, Quinn tapped several sources. One,
Reina Pennington’s Wings, Women, and War, did a terrific run-down covering the female Red Army regiments. Another, A Dance With Death, a compilation of interviews done in the 1990s with surviving Night Witches, recounting their experiences in their own words. “I recommend both–absolutely fascinating reading. The hair on my neck rose more than once as I read about the risks and hardships these women undertook every night as a matter of course. Climb out on the wing at 2,000 meters to knock a jammed bomb off the bomb rack? Just another day at the office!”

 In a field of compelling World War II novels, Quinn’s book is a standout. What drew her to this time period, which is a shift from The Alice Network? Quinn says, “I think we are becoming aware, in this day and age, that our WWII veterans are growing fewer every day, and there is an urge to hear these stories while those who were alive to experience the reality can appreciate them.

“There is also a growing drive, in a time of ever-more passionate feminism and “her-story,” for the narratives of historical women with unacclaimed achievements–I certainly never learned about the Night Witches in any of my history classes, or the women who masterminded the historic Alice network which was featured in my last book. These are the women I look for in history, who I want to highlight in my books and rave about for readers who (like me) didn’t hear about them in school.”

But at the same time, Quinn is careful to avoid one-dimensional evil Nazi clichés, no simple authorial task. She explains, “I wanted to explore the unsettling idea that even heinous murderers can have loving, caring sides. It’s far too simplistic to say that every war criminal was a mustache-twirling, swaggering personification of pure evil to everyone they met.

“It’s far more frightening to see people who commit terrible crimes, then cheerfully go home, kiss their kids, cuddle their dogs, and sleep well at night. My Huntress is a woman who committed multiple murders under the Third Reich, yet that doesn’t mean she isn’t also a great friend to the women in her life. She’s just the kind of smart, insightful friend who will mix a great cocktail, give insightful relationship advice, and urge you to follow your dreams. It’s not an attempt to make her crimes excusable, simply round her out as more than a 2-D soap opera villain.”

The Huntress will be available to purchase February 26, 2019.

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Kate Quinn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction. A native of southern California, she attended Boston University where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. She has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance, before turning to the 20th century with “The Alice Network” and “The Huntress.” All have been translated into multiple languages. Kate and her husband now live in San Diego with two rescue dogs named Caesar and Calpurnia, and her interests include opera, action movies, cooking, and the Boston Red Sox.