A thriller with a nondescript cover, including an endorsement from bestselling author Lee Child is perhaps not the big ticket item on your go-to list of reading material. You may be a bit more highbrow than that.
I mean, sure Lee Child knows how to put together and airport page-turner (his Jack Reacher novels are among the bookshelves of one in three fathers’ day gift recipients). I feel the same way about Dan Brown, whose Da Vinci Code is a page turner no doubt, albeit whilst being entirely arse gravy from first page to last.
BUT, and here’s the thing, Andrew Gross’ The One Man is a cracking spy thriller. While setting something ‘thrilling’ partially behind the walls of Auschwitz belies a certain historical and political sensitivity (as the book is fiercely entertaining, which is not something one usually says about matters set inside concentration camps), this fictionalization of circumstances surrounding both the ‘Final Solution’ and the Manhattan Project makes for a first-rate page turner. I was really impressed by this book’s pace, tone and effective use of history, research and science to cobble together what is tantamount to an adventure story. Again, not quite what you’d expect from the subject matter.
There are a couple of caveats on this: the dialogue is on occasion quite ropy – the SS and Gestapo villains of the piece speak in a way which occasionally turns genuine menace into moustache-twirling cartoon villainy (stopping just short of a black-glove-clad, manacled SS officer informing his subject ‘Ve have vays of makink you talk…’). Key moments of interrogation are blighted by overly played faux-politeness on the Nazis’ part, which underscores the heft of the novel’s drama. Also, there’s a deus ex machina thrown in during the final act which could not have been more obvious and telegraphed. The final act is, in fact the book’s stumbling block. Which is a pity, given the thrills it encompasses en route to its over-played denouement.
I read a quote once from someone philosophically reflecting on the aftermath of the Holocaust, in that the cure for cancer probably died along with the six million. What The One Man does, quite successfully, is take this notion and apply it to the world of nuclear physics; that the victory against the Axis powers and the salvation of western civilisation could have been brought about in no small part to key information being retrieved from inside Auschwitz. It could be fantastical hokum; but extracting yourself from to-the-letter historical accuracy avails you the chance to have a glorious time reading it.