“The Accomplice” is a Terrific Spy Thriller

His publisher says that Joseph Kanon writes for adults,  and that’s not hyperbole. Kanon’s intense and thrilling spy novels are subtle, sophisticated, and beautifully written.  His mastery is evident on every page and reading one of his thrillers you can feel like you’re on one of those luxury river cruises with a master chef, an expert guide, and a stateroom fit for an Egyptian pharaoh.

I’ve re-read some of his books as well as used excerpts in creative writing workshops, and every contact I have with his work makes me admire him more (and inspires me in my own fiction).

In The Accomplice, danger looms and crackles on every page.  The plot is simple, the execution satisfyingly complex.  CIA desk analyst Aaron Wiley lost some of his family at Auschwitz and lives in the shadow of their murder.  But it’s not until his Nazi hunter uncle recruits him to track down a major war criminal that he becomes an agent in the field.  Against his better judgment–at first, anyway–Aaron is soon hunting for one of the insanely sadistic doctors who performed horrific medical experiments on Jewish prisoners.  This doctor was personally responsible for the death of his mother and his cousin.

Wiley is understandably haunted by the specter of that demonic figure his uncle aches to find and hand over to the appropriate authorities.  And all seems to be proceeding to plan until life throws Andrew a  gigantic curve: He meets the killer’s daughter and becomes enthralled by her.  Kanon has made her a perfect femme fatale.

Kannon handles the tangled relationship that develops between them with absolute believability.  It’s so twisted, so fraught, so inseparable from the hunt for the woman’s father–and the prose seems to echo those dark emotional realities. Kanon’s writing in this book is replete with sentence fragments and jagged shards of dialogue and memory as the story drives inexorably forward.

The narrative also raises important questions.

What do the Holocaust war criminals deserve?  Can any punishment possibly be commensurate with their hideous crimes?  How did they co-opt prisoners to help them commit their atrocities?  What is the burden of being a son or daughter of one of these beasts?

The form of the book is classic, almost Hitchcockian: an ordinary man is swept up into events he could never have imagined taking over his life, and he struggles to survive and make sense of it all.  Wiley is a hero, but he’s no superman.  As Kanon notes about him, “Everyone at the agency had been trained to handle a gun, but he’d never shot anyone, had never hunted anything.”

The action, both dramatic and emotional, is non-stop, the denouement is shocking, and there are two fabulous scenes set in cemeteries that might take your breath away. The second one reminded me of the ending chase in North by Northwest.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres, most recently State University of Murder.  He currently teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

“Transcription” Is The Dullest WW II Novel I’ve Read In Years

When I started reviewing crime fiction and other genres for the Detroit Free Press back in the 90s, I made an odd discovery.  Reviewers, friends, acquaintances would be raving about a book or an author.  I’d get a review copy and think, “Huh?  What am I missing?”  I remember one book that was hailed across the country in almost ridiculous terms, with one major reviewer gushing that it wasn’t just a book, it was an experience.

Well, isn’t reading every book an experience of some kind?

The second part of this discovery was that when I’d be out on tour for one of my own books, when it came time for Q&A, eventually someone would ask about one of these books the whole world seemed to worship and adore.  The questions always came a bit tentatively, as if it was heretical to even raise them.  I would be honest but focus on something technical.  For instance, with one wild best seller, I said I just didn’t believe the voice was the voice of a teenager.

I’ve been observing the love fest for Kate Atkinson for awhile. Friends have urged me to read Life After Life or Case Histories, and I just couldn’t get into them.  Then a best friend sent me three of her books as holiday gifts.  I picked Transcription because it was the shortest, and I was determined to finish it so we could discuss it.  This is the story of a young woman, Juliet Armstrong, drawn into the fringes of England intelligence in 1940. Her job is typing up transcriptions of bugged conversations of British Nazi sympathizers.  If it sounds dull, it is.

Nothing dramatic happens until halfway, and even then, the drama is relative. Eventually something more exciting does take place, but as WW II books go, this is a sleeper.  I have nothing against war novels that are literary fiction: One of my favorites is Helen Humphreys’ Coventry, which is poetic and intensely dramatic.  But Transcription was annoying in a number of ways.  Apparently shifting decades is one of Atkinson’s “things.”  I found it frustrating.  A straightforward narrative would have ramped up the tension.

But the narrative itself was more awkward and off-putting than the structure.  Juliet is given to incessant thinking about her thinking and to making silly puns.  When told to keep an ear out, she notes that she has two.  Hah.  Hah.  The trivial focus on her mental commentary is relentless and her observations are sometimes ridiculously banal: “But then, what constituted real?  Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?”

There’s a plot twist at the end that doesn’t quite relieve the boredom of the previous 250+ pages. There’s also so much tea drinking that after awhile you begin to wonder if the book is meant to be some kind of spoof of British fiction.

After finishing, I found that a host of highly disappointed readers on Amazon found similar problems with the book.  Me, I read it out of loyalty to my friend, and finally out of morbid curiosity: could it really go on like this page after page?  It did.

With twenty years of university teaching behind him, Lev Raphael offers a range of creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com “Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael is like seeing ‘Blade Runner’ for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, Michigan