In the 1970s, a cottage industry of novelists emerged to exploit lingering fears of Nazi Germany.
Robert Ludnum’s The Holcroft Covenant is a product of that movement.
A Swiss bank contacts American architect Noel Holcroft about a trust fund established by his natural father, Heinrich Clausen, and two other Nazis.
The three stole German funds, leaving instructions with their banker for disbursing the stolen money in 30 years to aid survivors and descendants of Holocaust victims.
Signatures from heirs of all trust fund signatories are required for the bank to release the funds, now grown to $780 million.
Noel is to locate those heirs.
What Noel does not know is that at the same time the “repentant Nazis” were setting up the compensation fund, other Nazis were sending thousands of their children to safety so when they became adults in the 1970s, they could establish a Fourth Reich.
Ludnum establishes all that background in the first 10 pages.
The rest of the book is a blur of action with Noel trying to play secret agent, the bad guys shooting everything that moves, and characters with the personalities of Lego blocks.
Ludnum’s epilogue leaves readers with a vision of the future, which we’re seeing come to life in the 21st century.
Passing through Paris on his way to Greece, historian John Craig runs into one of his Columbia professors, a former Auschwitz inmate on his way back to the states after testifying at the trial of Nazis in Frankfurt.
The Double Image by Helen MacInnes
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. 309 pp. My grade: B.
Over drinks, Sussman confides that he’s seen a dead Nazi on a Paris street.
Craig wonders if Sussman is hallucinating.
Then he sees a man follow Sussman from the cafe.
The next day Craig learns the professor was found dead, apparently of suicide.
Those unsettling experiences—and a party hosted by his brother-in-law in the foreign service—plunge Craig into the grim world of Cold War international espionage.
Helen MacInnes keeps a tight rein on her complex plot. She sketches the main characters in only slightly more detail than necessary to make their behavior believable.
There’s nothing of James Bond about Craig. He can use his fists or a pistol, but his intelligence is his main weapon.
And he doesn’t get even one woman into bed—not even the one woman he’d like to have there.
The Double Image will please readers who like their entertainment fast moving and intellectually challenging.
As Americans wait for the end to the Afghan war, James A. Michener’s 1963 bestseller Caravans is a timely once more.
The novel is set in 1946. As World War II ends, the American embassy in Kabul is ordered to investigate the disappearance of Ellen Jaspar Nazrulllah, a Pennsylvania woman recently married to an Afghan engineer.
The task is given to Mark Miller, a young Jew who loves ancient history and Afghan food. He’s accompanied by an Afghan who works for the American embassy as well as for the Afghanistan government.
His search for Ellen takes Miller across Afghanistan on routes that were trod by Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan. Miller finds the missing woman, but in finding her uncovers more mysteries.
Michener is noted for his ability to weave history and fiction against a backdrop of vividly presented scenery. In Caravans, he not only does all that superbly, but also rachets up the suspense to thriller-level.
Once you start this novel, you won’t want to put it down. Later however, you’ll realize the weakness of the story: Miller cannot figure out what really motivates the missing woman, and Michener appears not to have decided either. What readers should sense as ambiguity feels uncomfortably like lack of control.
By James A. Michener
Random House, 1963
336 pages + notes
1963 bestseller # 4
My grade: B
Mila 18 is a fictional account of the Jewish uprising against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.
Leon Uris weaves together the stories of Jews inside the Ghetto with stories both of their friends and their enemies outside.
The Jews are deeply divided over how to respond to the Nazi threat. Many hope it will go away if ignored. Some want to appease. Some want to fight.
As the Nazis systematically depopulate the Ghetto, a core of those ready to fight forms in secret basement rooms beneath Mila 18.
Led by Andrei Androfski, Jews fight unexpectedly and valiantly. Only a few escape, getting out through the sewers, but among them is a gentile journalist who knows where the Jews buried documents detailing their ghetto experience.
If the plot of Mila 18 sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because John Hersey used the same historical outline for his 1950 bestseller The Wall.
Uris’s addition of non-Jewish characters like the Nazi Horst von Epp and Polish collaborator Franz Koenig adds to readers’ understanding of events, particularly the ethnic rivalries that gave the Nazis a foothold, but weakens the novel’s focus.
If you can read only one novel about the Warsaw uprising, choose The Wall instead.
Mila 18 By Leon Uris
1961 bestseller # 4
My Grade: B +
John Hersey’s The Wall is a story of the Warsaw ghetto. Unlike many holocaust novels, The Wall focuses primarily on the Jews’ fight to overcome their human natures. Their resistance to the Nazis comes out of that fight.
In 1939, the Jews are being squeezed into a small section of Warsaw, and the Poles who had lived and worked among them are being squeezed out.
The Nazis order the Jews to set up their own governing council. Political parties from before the war continue their squabbles. As conditions in the ghetto worsen, the Jews turn on their leaders.
Even in the ghetto, someone with the right currency and connections can get almost anything he wants. Gradually, the pre-war social and economic leaders give way to a new set of leaders: smugglers, blackmarketeers, resistance operatives. Families are broken up; those who remain form new families of unrelated people.
Hersey presents his story as a series of documents written during the ghetto years and buried for posterity. The story, however, has no need of literary tricks to make it plausible. The behavior of the core characters is so realistic that readers will accept the story as representing the Warsaw ghetto.
By John Hersey
Alfred A. Knopf, 1950
1950 bestseller # 4
My Grade: A-
In The Moral Storm, Phyllis Bottome rejuvenates the tired brother-against-brother theme by putting it into the setting of Nazi Germany.
The story concerns a young medical student, Freya Roth. With her first year exams over, she begins to notice that her parents aren’t thrilled with her two half-brothers’ infatuation with Hitler. Freya thinks, “What do politics matter?”
Olaf and Emil warn their parents that Freya’s friendship with a Communist peasant lad could have serious consequences since Dr. Roth is Jewish. As a matter of principle, Dr. and Mrs. Roth refuse to close the door to Hans because of his politics.
By the time Freya begins to see how serious the German situation is, her lover has been shot dead by a Nazi patrol lead by her favorite bother, her father is in a concentration camp, and Freya is pregnant.
Freya has to get out of Germany. She also has to decide what to do with her baby and what to do about her 12-year-old brother who is part Jewish.
The novel derives its power from the contrast between the loving concern the Nazi boys show to their Jewish stepfather and the self-absorption of their Jewish half-sister. The family is divided by politics, but united by love.
The Mortal Storm
By Phyllis Bottome
Little, Brown, 1938
1938 bestseller # 9
My Grade: B+