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A Shell-Shocked Savant and a WWI Psychiatrist - an Editorial Review of "The Shadow of the Mole"

Book Blurb:

The Shadow Of The Mole is a finalist in the Best Thriller Book Awards 2022 in the Historical Fiction category on

1916, Bois de Bolante, France. The battles in the trenches are raging fiercer than ever. In a deserted mineshaft, French sappers discover an unconscious man and nickname him The Mole.

Claiming he has lost his memory, The Mole is convinced that he's dead and that an Other has taken his place. The military brass considers him a deserter, but front physician and psychiatrist-in-training Michel Denis suspects that his patient's odd behavior is stemming from shellshock, and tries to save him from the firing squad.

The mystery deepens when The Mole begins to write a story in écriture automatique that takes place in Vienna, with Dr. Josef Breuer, Freud's teacher, in the leading role. Traumatized by the recent loss of an arm, Denis becomes obsessed with him and is prepared to do everything he can to unravel the patient's secret.

Set against the staggering backdrop of the First World War, The Shadow Of The Mole is a thrilling tableau of loss, frustration, anger, madness, secrets and budding love. The most urgent question in this extraordinary story is: when, how, and why reality shifts into delusion?

"The Flemish writer Bob Van Laerhoven writes in a fascinating and compelling way about a psychiatric investigation during WW1. The book offers superb insight into the horrors of war and the trail of human suffering that results from it" - NBD Biblion

Author Bio:

Bob van Laerhoven was born on August 8th, 1953 in the sandy soil of Antwerp's Kempen, a region in Flanders (Belgium), bordering to The Netherlands, where according to the cliché 'pig-headed clodhoppers' live. This perhaps explains why he started to write stories at a particularly young age. A number of his stories were published in English, French, German, Polish, Spanish, and Slovenian.


Van Laerhoven made his debut as a novelist in 1985 with "Nachtspel - Night Game." He quickly became known for his 'un-Flemish' style: he writes colorful, kaleidoscopic novels in which the fate of the individual is closely related to broad social transformations. His style slowly evolved in his later novels to embrace more personal themes while continuing to branch out into the world at large. International flair has become his trademark.


Bob Van Laerhoven became a full-time author in 1991. The context of his stories isn't invented behind his desk, rather it is rooted in personal experience. As a freelance travel writer, for example, he explored conflicts and trouble-spots across the globe from the early 1990s to 2004. Echoes of his experiences on the road also trickle through in his novels. Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, Mozambique, Burundi, Lebanon, Iraq, Myanmar... to name but a few.


During the Bosnian war, Van Laerhoven spent part of 1992 in the besieged city of Sarajevo. Three years later he was working for MSF - Doctors without frontiers - in the Bosnian city of Tuzla during the NATO bombings. At that moment the refugees arrived from the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. Van Laerhoven was the first writer from the Low Countries to be given the chance to speak to the refugees. His conversations resulted in a travel book: "Srebrenica. Getuigen van massamoord - Srebrenica. Testimony to a Mass Murder." The book denounces the rape and torture of the Muslim population of this Bosnian-Serbian enclave and is based on first-hand testimonies. He also concludes that mass murders took place, an idea that was questioned at the time but later proven accurate.


All these experiences contribute to Bob Van Laerhoven's rich and commendable oeuvre, an oeuvre that typifies him as the versatile author of novels, travel stories, theatre pieces, biographies, non-fiction, letters, columns, articles... He is also a prize-winning author: in 2007 he won the Hercule Poirot Prize for best crime-novel of the year with "De Wraak van Baudelaire - Baudelaire's Revenge." "Baudelaire's Revenge" has been published in the USA, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Russia. In 2014, a second French translation of one of his titles has been published in France and Canada. "Le Mensonge d'Alejandro" is set in a fictitious South-American dictatorship in the eighties. The "junta" in this novel is a symbol for the murderous dictatorships in South-America (Chile and Argentine, to mention two) during the seventies and beginning of the eighties. In The Netherlands and Belgium, his novel "De schaduw van de Mol" (The Shadow Of The Mole) was published in November 2015. The novel is set in the Argonne-region of France in 1916. In 2017 followed "Dossier Feuerhand (The Firehand Files), set in Berlin in 1921.

"Baudelaire's Revenge" is the winner of the USA BEST BOOK AWARDS 2014 in the category Fiction: mystery/suspense.

In April 2015 The Anaphora Literary Press published the collection of short stories "Dangerous Obsessions" in the US, Australia, UK, and Canada, in paperback, e-book, and hardcover. "Dangerous Obsessions" was voted "best short story collection of 2015 in The San Diego Book Review. In May 2017, Месть Бодлерa, the Russian edition of "Baudelaire's Revenge" was published. "Dangerous Obsessions" has been published in Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, and Spanish editions. In January 2018 followed "Heart Fever", a second collection of short stories, published by The Anaphora Literary Press. The collection came out in German, Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish. "Heart Fever" was one of the five finalists - and the only non-American author - of the Silver Falchion Award 2018 in the category "short stories collections." In April 2018, Crime Wave Press (Hong Kong) brought forth the English language publication of "Return to Hiroshima", Brian Doyle's translation of the novel "Terug naar Hiroshima". The British quality review blog "MurderMayhem&More" listed "Return to Hiroshima" in the top ten of international crime novels in 2018. Readers' Favorite gave Five Stars. In August 2021, Next Chapter published "Alejandro's Lie," the English translation of "Alejandro's leugen."

Editorial Review:

I understand, Captain. But there will always be rumours amongst the men. These dismal woods, these gruesome circumstances – it sets off their fantasies: evil spirits, the devil, all manner of chimeras... Mind you, I don't suffer such affliction and personally I regard The Mole as a patient, not as Satan in person.” A pinch of irony was not absent in the young doctor. “My diagnosis is that the patient is genuinely suffering from shell shock and has really lost his memory, maybe even his mind. Moreover, I think he's a civilian. He wasn't wearing any military tag. Since he was on foot, we may assume he's from this region. I examined his hands. Those are not the hands of a soldier or a farmer.”

For this reviewer who has spent years savouring her favorite novel “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and comparing many new historical literary novels to that one, to find another one which resonates so much with the soul and mind as this one, and for it to have a similar title (The Shadow of the Mole) is simply astounding. First and foremost, this story is a work of sheer genius... a work of art... alive and breathing the most beautiful and gut-wrenching prose.

Only the search for beauty could be the purpose of life. Clutching Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal close to his body, he longed to express the depth of his desire. Often, he sat for hours at the old attic table, searching maladroitly for the deeper meaning of words. He wrestled with rhyme schemes and sounds, but everything he wrote on paper seemed persnickety, except maybe for one sullen rhyme that seemed to possess a message every time he read it. He felt that prickling sensation again. Looked at that peculiar doll, the third one. It looked back at him.

In summary, the story set in 1916 WWI in the trenches of Bois de Bolante, France; a mysterious catatonic man is discovered while trench diggers excavate tunnels beneath the lines of the German army. After he is taken to the field doctor, Michel Denis, and named “The Mole," the doctor and a nurse, Marie, are sucked into the mystery of this man. Denis, formerly trained some in the psychiatric field, loosely diagnoses the man with shell shock and attempts to get to the bottom of the man's hidden identity and story.

Ironic, isn't it?” Ferrand continued. “This war gives curious people like us the opportunity to study the human mind more closely than ever. And what do we find? That we all perform a grand pantomine and hide the angels and devils in us. The innumerable tricks of the brain make us unpredictable and obscure what is really going on. Fascinating, really.”

A story within a story emerges when the doctor gives The Mole a notebook, to which he starts to write in an almost otherworldly automatic recitation on the pages... his story... or is it his story? Denis becomes obsessed with the man's story, a tangled and psychological thriller about a man named Alain searching for a gypsy girl with a diamond in her belly button, a girl who changed his life in just one meeting. In the story, Alain reveals the sordid and corrupt underbelly of Paris during the Belle Epoque era – a time when philosophy, art, absinthe, and the new discovers in psychiatric treatments (Freud) bubbled to the surface in a cacophony of hazy putridness. The comparison between the horrors of the war, fighting in the trenches, and the decay of the city before the war, as well as a person's mind, is beyond compare in the way the author reveals the mystery.

Yet, in his search for the sparkle of a jewel in a navel, all he had discovered were flecks of dirt in the wrinkles of belly buttons.

Yet, Denis struggles with his own problems after losing his arm in an explosion, which eventually sends him to a different post at a mental hospital, still serving as a doctor and supervising the man known as the Mole, and leaving behind the one person who understood him better than he realized – the nurse, Marie. While at the hospital, his friendship with the director, Ferrand, gradually reveals more about the patient's history, as well as the secrets hidden in Denis's mind. The culmination of the Mole's identity, the letters from Marie about her fate, and Denis's obsession with horses come to a stark and shattering psychological conclusion, one which will stay with the reader well into the dark night. For this reviewer, it was not possible to put this book aside to get one wink of sleep until every single word was absorbed. While many who are avid historical fiction readers might be inclined to more light genre-typical reads, this one, this meaty thought-provoking literary novel is one for the ages, a classic in the making and will go on the shelf right next to my beloved copy of 'The Shadow of the Wind”. As a trigger warning, this is not for the faint-hearted as the descriptions of war, the shell-shocked rages of the mind trying to deal with the brutalities, the harsh connections of Freud's psycho-sexual analysis on patients, the searing flashbacks, the references to age-old philosophers and poets, as well as the traumas suffered in early childhood, play out with such authenticity as to bring tears to the eyes on more than one occasion. A brilliant offering of astounding historical literature with themes such as the survival of the human spirit in the face of hopelessness and ultimate love within the ugly chaos of war and disfigurement of the mind and body.


“The Shadow of the Mole” by Bob Van Laerhoven receives five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company



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