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Why the Best-Selling Novel, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, Is Raising Red Flags

Updated: Apr 8

Rumblings in the literary world

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Literary Rumblings of Fraud

I admit that I’m easily excited by stories. A good plot gets my blood pumping. A strong character piques my interest. A well-researched historical basis stimulates my mind. So it’s no surprise that the premise of Mark T. Sullivan’s Beneath a Scarlet Sky wowed me.

The novel was based on “the true story of a forgotten hero,” Pino Lella, an Italian youth who led refugees over the mountains to freedom in physical acts of courage. Later, Lello enlisted in the German Army to avoid being drafted into it. Once in the German army, was appointed as the chauffeur to German General Hans Leyers where Pino Lella performed mental feats of tremendous strength by spying on the General and providing information to the Italian Resistance.

I loved the book, Beneath a Scarlet Sky.

Was my praise naive or premature?

In the last two weeks, I received notes from several readers who wanted me to think again about promoting Mark Sullivan’s Beneath a Scarlet Sky, with one reader suggesting the book is “an epic hoodwinking.”

“…I recommend you do some poking around (GoodReads and now Reddit), because in reality the book is not in the same universe as what the author (mis)represents it to be … not correctly marketed as “based on a true story” much less “90% true”. This is so even after accounting for the gross abuse and redefining of “Based On a True Story,” (BOTS) products by the leisure-entertainment industry to the point where it can be all but meaningless.
The truth is that this is one of those situations where a lot of folks will one day marvel that it took so very long for what is fairly categorized as a literary fraud to be (widely) exposed for what it is and the author held to account for his many deceits. ..”

What’s the impetus for these rumblings?

Two writers got it started:

Cat Calilban

A writer named Cat Caliban debunked several aspects of Sullivan’s book in a Reddit post.

  • No written evidence or paper trails exist of either Pino or his brother, Mimo Lello’s heroic antics during the war.

  • Sullivan claims records have been burned by the Nazis, but the Nazis wouldn’t have kept records of Pino’s work with the boys of Casa Alpina who skiied refugees across the border. Nazis would not have had records of the activities of the Italian Resistance in which Pino might have been named. The lack of these records has nothing to do with the Nazis destroying them.

  • In 1985, Pino Lello gave an interview with significantly different details from what he presented to Mark Sullivan more than twenty years later.

  • The German general that Pino Lella served as a chauffeur was not Hans Leyers, but General Kaufmann.

Franco Isman

Franco Isman was a young Italian Jewish boy who stayed at Casa Alpina from September of 1943 until May of 1945 when Italy was liberated from the Germans. He was there at the same time that the Lella boys were supposedly there. Now an elderly man, he writes historical pieces.

Isman makes these claims:

  • That Pino and Mimo Lella did not live at Casa Alpina as the book claims they were. Isman has no memory of them. Neither boy appears in any of the photos Isman has of the years at Casa Alpina.

  • That Mark Sullivan used a picture of Franco Isman as Mimo Lello.

  • That Mark Sullivan’s portrayal of Casa Alpina was not accurate. There were not forty boys, but fewer than ten.

  • That Mark Sullivan has the geography all wrong in the scene where he describes Pino Lella’s extraordinary rescue of a pregnant woman, carrying her and her Stradivarius violin across the Alps to safety in Switzerland. Once she’s safely delivered, Lello pauses at the top of dam to hear the violinist play a moving song in thanks. Isman notes,

“Really poetic. Too bad that the dam that formed the lake was built after the war and, above all, that the Val di Lei was Italy and not Switzerland! To reach Switzerland, they should have climbed another 500 meters on the opposite side of the valley.”

Rumblings vs. rumor vs. fact vs fiction

In Mark Sullivan’s defense, the conclusion to the novel’s preface assays this:

“Due to the document burning, the collective amnesia, and the death of so many characters by the time I learned of the story, I have been forced in places to construct scenes and dialogue based solely on Pino’s memory decades later, the scant physical evidence that remains, and my imagination fueled by my research and informed suspicions. I have also comingled or compressed events and characters for the sake of narrative coherence and have fully dramatized incidents that were described to me in much more truncated forms.
As a result, then, the story you are about to read is not a work of narrative nonfiction, but a novel of biographical and historical fiction that hews closely to what happened to Pino Lella between June 1943 and May 1945.”

Sullivan calls his book a “ novel.” Not “nonfiction.”

The reality is that the rumblings about “fraud” are because Beneath a Scarlet Sky is marketed as based on a “true story” and a few people are feeling duped by how much “truth” was included.

And that, my friends, is the issue with historical fiction. It’s extremely difficult to know how much is truth and how much is fiction.

No comment from the publishing world

Mark Sullivan’s basic marketing premise for the book — that it’s based on a “true” story — is what’s causing angst among readers.

Please note that I’ve looked for these same “rumblings” and/or acknowledgments about the book’s claims in the publishing world. Nothing has shown up in Publisher’s Marketplace, LitHub, or Library Journal, or in other news sources that focus on contemporary culture and issues.

Read the discussion on Goodreads as well as the ones posted above on Reddit and to make your own decision.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is a great story. You can still enjoy it and learn a bit about what Italy looked like under German occupation. You just have to know that it might be more of a “story” than it was presented to be.


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