Ali Karim is a Board Member of Bouchercon [The World Crime & Mystery Convention] and co-chaired programming for Bouchercon Raleigh, North Carolina in 2015. He is Assistant Editor of Shots eZine, British correspondent for The Rap Sheet and writes and reviews for many US magazines & Ezines.
“It begins with two men….they were running.” The old man looks out, but this time, his eyes are alive with memory. “Running for their lives,” He says as the prologue ends and Gross’ tale commences. In the short few pages of the prologue / opening, I found myself brewing coffee for I saw the beginnings of a very long and dark night ahead of me. I tossed the bookmark in the bin, for as I stirred my coffee I knew that I would not be requiring it.
I am reminded of a speech that legendary British book publisher Christopher MacLehose delivered in January 2008 at the Foreign Press Association’s headquarters in London’s West End, when his new imprint, MacLehose Press, launched—in conjunction with Quercus Publishing—a daring new novel titled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by a Swedish writer, Stieg Larsson, who’d died four years earlier.
He informed us that the job of the publisher is to bring books to the public that they didn’t want; books that they didn’t anticipate; and books that would nonetheless make an impression and challenge their way of thinking. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one such work, he observed.
I’ve been reeling recently after reading another such work, a highly literate suspense yarn, but one that is quite distinct from earlier efforts by this same best-selling author. I’m talking about American writer Andrew Gross’ The One Man, a heavily researched World War II-era historical techno-thriller that mixes in the themes of family and ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations. This is a truly remarkable tale, one that reminds me of thrillers by Alistair MacLean and other novels of my youth. It made me recall a weekend when I was a teenager and devoured Fredrick Forsyth’s The Odessa File and The Day of the Jackal, reading them back-to-back, hypnotized by Forsyth’s storytelling prowess.
The story has high concept etched in the narrative, right from the outset. Gross uses the conventions of the genre, keeping away from the line that takes convention toward, cliché. The opening has a terse memo dated 1943 from American Nuclear Physicists of the Manhattan Project to Robert Oppenheimer warning about the Nazi regime in Germany getting close to creating a Nuclear device; worrying the Allies who were also working on such a device and fearful that the enemy would get there first. Then Gross has the much maligned [but in many cases necessary] prologue that acts like a pivot point to launch the tale. An unnamed elderly man; a widower is confronted by a box of artifacts by his daughter, who uncovered these items while doing a clear out. When quizzed about the contents, the elderly man whose mental faculties are fading with age, asks of his daughter “you really want to know?” When she replies, “I do” and corrects herself, “we all do”, so the old man sits back for he has a story to tell.
It’s 1943, we have the Allies planning Operation Overlord [the D-Day landings] as well as getting their hands on a functioning nuclear device. In order to do so, they need the help of a German Jewish Professor of Physics, Alfred Mendl who has the key to separate the two main isotopes of Uranium; namely Uranium 235 and Uranium 238, by a process of Gaseous Diffusion. For only one of the isotopes, Uranium 235 will result in a fission reaction, and the process of separating U235 from the heavier U238, is what Physical Chemists term Uranium enrichment. The Office of Strategic Services [OSS]; the war time precursor to what we term The Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], have been trying to get Professor Alfred Mendl, his wife Marte and daughter Lucy out of Germany to resettle them in America, and assist the Manhattan Project team [in enriching sufficient fissile Uranium 235, to create the weapon that will end the war].
The Mendl family have successfully managed to get into Nazi occupied France on forged documents from an agent in the Paraguayan embassy – under the aegis of the OSS’s Operation Catfish. At the eleventh hour in France, the Mendl’s family documents are detected as forgeries by the Nazis and their French collaborators of the Vichy regime, and so shipped by cattle truck to Auschwitz concentration camp, in Poland.
Enter Nathan Blum, a young Polish athlete, of Jewish heritage who smuggled himself out of the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto, and is now working for the OSS in America. He is sent back to Poland, where he is smuggled into Auschwitz on a suicide mission in-conjunction with Polish partisans [the Armia Krajowa, the Polish Resistance]. Nathan Blum has just three days to locate Mendl [and his family], and smuggle him out of the Concentration camp, to rendezvous with a Plane [in a clearing in the forest that surrounds Auschwitz].
Though as impossible as missions go, Blum’s ratchets up a couple of gears when Colonel Martin Franke of the Abwehr [Nazi Intelligence], intercepts what he believes is a coded broadcast. For Franke, this could be redemption if his instincts are correct; for he has been disgraced and working in a backwater in Poland for a past indiscretion. Though for Blum, success in his suicide mission also holds redemption, for he lost his family in the Warsaw Ghetto; Mother, Father and his beloved Sister to the Nazi horror.
There are several well delineated sub-characters that add much interest to the proceedings, including the Deputy Camp Commandant, his wife Greta, the chess savant Leo, and many others. One criticism that is often levelled at thriller novelists is the quality of cardboard used in crafting the characters. I can assure you all the characters are organic, breathing and multifaceted and each battling their inner demons in a world that resembles a hell on Earth. Though there is compassion, knowingness and a love for humanity striated throughout the work, even an understanding for some of those trapped behind the black boots and swastika; and why they used these items to mask their own fears, inadequacies and blame – and why some enjoyed the inflicting of pain.
Though, hidden beneath the action of The One Man are some poignant love stories, and the consequences of what war and hate can do to families. Like its precursor, of sorts; the medieval historical thriller The Jester - it thrills as well as informs the reader, making one think, ponder and reflect upon our lives. In the chaos of today’s world, where our weapons can destroy everything, we need reminding frequently, about the shamefulness of our past, and how one man can make a difference.
To say anymore will spoil the invigorating and thought-provoking thrills of Nathan Blum’s suicide mission, bar one. When I reached the dénouement, I was stunned at a little twist; one that made me put the book down, and made me applaud until my palms stung and were as red as the LED digits on my alarm clock informing me it was 4 AM, and I had read Gross’ novel through the night.