Top critical review
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on 19 November 2009
"Workmanlike" is probably the adjective that best fits this thriller, which hopscotches back and forth between the present and WWII. The story is appropriately convoluted for the genre, involving a naive anti-Nazi resistance group in Berlin, the impending collapse of the Third Reich, OSS activities in Switzerland, and how all these connect to the present. And rest assured they do -- as Dr. Nat Turnbull, a semi-distinguished professor of modern German history at a small liberal-arts college, discovers when he is hired to track down some old OSS files hidden by his mentor at the college.
Turnbull (like pretty much every character in the book) is a stock figure, he's the anonymous academic who gets sucked into a great intrigue with national security implications (paging Dr. Jones, Dr. Indiana Jones to the front please, your country needs you to fight Nazis). It seems these old missing files have something to do with present-day nuclear weapons proliferation, and since the FBI apparently doesn't have the expertise to find them, they enlist Dr. Turnbull. This is a pretty flimsy way of setting up a kind of "everyman" protagonist, and it only continues to be unconvincing as the story moves along. But you just have to accept the premise and move on if you want to have any hope of enjoying the book.
What follows is a treasure hunt that takes Dr. Turnbull all over the place, from Baltimore to the National Archives outside Washington, to Florida, Switzerland, various parts of Germany, and so on. Tagging along with him for parts of this quest is his unreliable ally, a mysterious German academic with her own agenda. Meanwhile, alternating chapters take us back to wartime Germany and the relationships among members of a feeble resistance cell. The historically-set material is much more interesting than the contemporary chapters, as we get a real sense of how certain parts of German society were trying to position themselves for the inevitable Allied victory. Alas, the characters of both eras are types rather than people, and there is plenty of quite creaky dialogue throughout.
The story is full of twists and turns and deceit, all of which work perfectly well but somehow feel rather formulaic. You could spend your whole life reading nothing but thrillers revolving around Nazi Germany, so it takes a lot to stand out. (For example, this book has little of the detail that bring Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy to vivid life, nor do they have the striking atmosphere of Alan Furst's excellent spy novels). The book tries gamely to provide that big twist at the end that readers expect from thrillers, unfortunately I saw it coming a mile away (in the first third of the book I had a pretty good idea that an assumption had been made regarding a certain character that would be revealed at the very end to be untrue, and I was right). In the end, I can't say I'm glad I read it, but neither can I say it's not worth reading. It's a serviceable thriller that passes the time pleasantly enough, as long you keep your expectations lowish.