Testimony, by Scott Turow

The premise of this 2017 novel is that four hundred Roma, gypsies, were reported buried alive in a cave after a deliberate man-made landslide trapped them inside. This is in Bosnia in 2004. Did such a massacre truly happen? If it did, who was responsible? Was it the Serbian militia? Was it Bosnian Muslims? Was it local gangsters? None of them liked the Roma.

There are also rumors that the American army was responsible. That they killed the gypsies in revenge because those same gypsies had stolen American guns and sold them to the Bosnian Serb leader, Laja Kajevic. And that this brutal man, patterned after the real Radovan Karadzic, had ambushed the Americans with those guns when they tried to capture him, resulting in four dead American soldiers and eight wounded.

The complicated politics of the former Yugoslavia, where Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians killed one another during the 1990s, has drawn Kindle County prosecutor Bill ten Boom to Europe two decades later. His move is in response to a mid-life crisis produced by an unfulfilling career back home and a lackluster marriage. And since he is of Dutch ancestry, he has accepted an assignment as a lawyer at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The American lawyer knows that a gypsy, Ferko Rincic, has brought a report of the gypsy massacre to the Court, and that his assignment will be to verify that story. All of which also represents a major switch from Turow’s own previous environment for his legal thrillers, Kindle County in the American Midwest. And not only does his hero know no one at the international court, he must also operate within an entirely new legal system.

The result is a fast moving legal thriller in which the ground rules keep changing as Boom and the Belgian Goos, his official investigator, uncover new information. The new data, however, seems either to contradict previous information or to be less reliable. This begins with the details of Ferko’s original report, but then continues as Boom succumbs to the sexual favors of Esma Czarni, Ferko’s lawyer, who is a British-educated beauty who claims a gypsy heritage. Still further complications are introduced by a transgendered woman, Attila, a former American army sergeant who now has contacts with both the American military and the Bosnian militia as a local provider of back-up services.

The search for the truth of what happened to the gypsies in that cave a decade earlier is a long and complicated one. There are thrilling moments, such as when Boom has his neck chained by unknown captors to the neck of his official investigator at the top of a Bosnian water tower, where the wrong move by either one will send them toppling to their death. And there are some emotionally moving moments as well, such as when Boom speculates on the faithfulness of the women in his life. But even more moving is when he learns that his true ancestry is not Dutch, and that his parents brought him to the America he loves in order to avoid charges of betrayal.

Indeed, the loyalties and the treacheries of the characters Boom meets in his new job are difficult to follow in a part of the world where the Bosnians, the gypsies, the U.S. Army, the Serbian militia, the free-lance provider, and the international court are often working at cross-purposes. What is interesting, however, is that many of these adversaries do come to appreciate and respect one another, even as they plot against each other. This recognition occurs, even though the slow revelation of what really happened in that cave produces long and complicated exchanges that are deliberately misleading. Which leads to more long conversations being sought from more reliable sources. Or, are they? Obviously, the testimony of the title refers to these conflicting conversations, even though many of them are not official proceedings in a courtroom.

Yet, despite these long and complicated exchanges of information, the overall experience this work offers is a rewarding one. First, both the story and the setting are different from what one usually encounters in legal thrillers. And this unusual Bosnian setting is convincingly real. It obviously required lengthy on-site research by the author, which has paid off.

Second, the novel is rewarding because Boom, the hero, has interesting personal problems that are interwoven into the story. How much is he capable of love, he asks himself. And, later, he speculates how can he fulfill his legal obligations to the Court, and yet at the same time make decisions that reflect the American tradition of fairness. Moreover, because he has come to respect a few of these adversaries, he recognizes that some have done bad things for good reasons, while others have done good things which were illegal.

In sum, this is a long and complicated story that moves fast early on, and then more slowly as Boom first gets involved with certain women, and then encounters a more nuanced situation when closing in on the truth about what happened to the gypsies. At the end, he seems to have found that truth, and yet is not completely happy with what he has learned.

What Turow has done here is taken moments of actual history, like an international court seeking to bring justice to the former Yugoslavia, like the historical cruelty among former Yugoslav neighbors, like the brutality of an actual Bosnian leader, like NATO troops rounding up weapons as part of enforcing the peace agreement, like a mysterious movement of seized arms from Bosnia to Iraq, and like a disgraced American general intent on saving his reputation. No wonder weaving them together turns out to be so complex.

Ben Macintyre aptly sums up this novel in his New York Times review. “This is at once a thriller, a story of middle-aged angst, an exposition of international law and an exploration of an intensely serious and a very nasty episode in recent history. Like the international court’s attempts to ring retrospective justice to Bosnia, it is imperfect and occasionally confusing, but also admirable and important.”

Just as his hero Boom sought a change of scenery and a change of venue, one wonders where Scott Turow will set his next novel. Will he return to Kindle County? Or will he explore the world further, intrigued by how the law is practiced under other cultures? (June, 2019)

The Running Target, by Gerald Seymour

This is a superb novel from 1989, as well as an excellent thriller. It marries the literary and espionage worlds, as it creates a political and social environment, peoples it with complicated characters who have differences of opinion, and raises issues of morality and justice.

This is a story of competition between the British police and British intelligence, and of leaders who belong to the old school and the foot soldiers who see today’s reality differently. It also covers the struggle between Iranian dissidents and Iranian authorities under the ayatollah, and about whether the ends of justice justify the violent means. And, finally, it tackles personal pride vs. personal disgrace, personal decision-making vs. professional discipline, and one’s personal duty vs. professional judgment.

The novel begins with three stories, each one interesting but each in conflict with the other, with the novel’s richness arising from this complexity. The reader’s involvement increases, moreover, as the author jumps back and forth from one story to another, obliging the reader to orient himself to each one and to anticipate how these three stories will link together.

The first story is one of revenge. Charlie Eshraq is a young Iranian exile whose father and sister have been killed by the Iranian revolutionaries, and so he vows revenge on the men who carried out those deaths. To do so, he carries Iranian heroin illegally into England and sells it to raise money to buy the arms he needs to carry out his private executions back home.

The second story revolves around David Park, a young strait-laced leader of a British Customs team assigned to stop all heroin trade. His job in the novel is to find the supplier of heroin which killed the daughter of an important politician. The one lead he is given will lead him to Charlie Eshraq.

The third story concerns Mattie Furniss, who runs British agents in Iran, and who is sent, against all rules, into Iran by an aggressive boss to beef up the information their Iranian agents are providing. And, since coincidence can drive such novels as this, it so happens that Mattie knew Charlie’s dead father and regards Charlie as a virtual son, and so willingly helps him obtain the arms he needs to carry out his avenging murders.

The three stories kick into high gear, when Mattie’s presence in Iran is detected. He is kidnapped and cruelly tortured in gruesome scenes, after which he reveals both the names of his agents and, in a moment of weakness, that of his revenge-minded friend Charlie.

All this is accompanied back home by the story of incompetence combined with the story of justice. The incompetence occurs in a London familiar from many a LeCarre novel, when Furniss’ Intelligence bosses casually delay warning their Iranian agents that they have been exposed. Moreover, the Customs team, led by David Park, is ordered by these same bosses, who are using Charlie for their own purposes, not to break up Charlie’s efforts to fund his revenge by distributing heroin.

Further complications arise when, ridden by guilt for breaking down under the harrowing torture and betraying his Iranian agents, Mattie surprises his guards, kills them, and flees across Iran toward Turkey. He becomes the running target of the title. Now, to the growing suspense, the novel adds an element of morality and justice. For, once back in London, Mattie is lionized by some as a hero, while others debate that he broke down and betrayed his agents. And this conflict strains his conscience, as he resists confessing the truth to a close friend who is debriefing him.

Whereupon, the novel returns to David Park, who is assigned to accompany Charlie Eshraq back into Iran with his weapons. And so he is also conflicted. Should he help this Eshraq who has brought the ravages of heroin into England, and so betray his, Park’s, own personal sense of justice?

Such richness and suspense are enhanced by the novel’s multiple viewpoints, which range beyond the main characters to their colleagues, bosses, and spouses, and even to their enemies. And a new viewpoint may not be identified at the start of a scene, with the reader being forced to wait for the proper identification, and even at times bring forced to figure it out. Which draws the reader more deeply into the action.

This novel is also enhanced by the convincing presentation of the Iranian intelligence service. Both the investigator and his team in pursuit of Mattie and then holding and torturing Mattie are intelligent and consistent professionals. They are dedicated to their mission; they are not stock villains, but worthy adversaries who make the risks Mattie and his agents face all the more convincing.

But what truly makes this novel stand out from other works of this type are the complexities of all the main characters, particularly the moral complexities. First comes the dense British Intelligence director who orders Mattie to go to Iran and demand that his agents provide more information, his prime motive being to build his own reputation. But his orders break all agency rules, for it risks the safety of both Mattie and his agents in Iran.

Then, there is Mattie himself, and how much he should hold out against torture when he is captured, and the guilt he feels about whether he deserves praise or condemnation for that struggle. Plus, there is Charlie Eshraq, who breaks British law by selling heroin, but who is allowed to do so in order to the buy the arms he needs to execute his justice back to Iran. And finally there is David Park, the policeman who has a one-track mind, intent on stopping all drug trade that harms British society, even as his own government helps one of his targets in the interest of British foreign policy.

I have always been impressed by Seymour’s thrillers, the last being Field of Blood, which also concerned political violence, in that case during the recent conflict in Northern Ireland. And where Seymour again focused on the moral issues involved. For when his hero is imprisoned by the British, he shows both the Irish and the British being honestly dedicated to their cause. So, I will be alert to other Seymour thrillers on sale. For his works are literary thrillers, merging suspense with the richness of politics and with moral and emotional complexity. (December, 2017)

Death of the Black-Haired Girl, by Robert Stone

This 2013 novel begins disappointingly, matures into a thoughtful literary work, and then eases itself at the end into a simple portrait of life. As Claire Messud writes in her New York Times review, Stone, “demands an attentive reader as he explores, through superficially familiar narratives, substantial themes.”

The novel begins with an affair at a small, elite university in New England between a married university professor, Steven Brookman and his smart, attractive student, Maud Stack. And my reaction is: how trite can a novel get? It is truly a “familiar narrative.” Maud is the black-haired girl of the title, an aggressive, opinionated student who allows herself to be seduced and convinces herself that this man is the love of her life. One reads on, unable to relate to her (or to the selfish, womanizing professor), simply because one is curious about how she is going to die.

That death does become a mystery, but this is not a mystery novel. Maud is killed by a hit-and-run-driver outside the professor’s house, when she argues with him and then turns angrily away. What matters to Stone now is what happens to the people who knew her and were left behind. Theirs will be a tale of accountability, and the pursuit of absolution. But unfortunately, we get to know Maud on only two superficial levels, her mad infatuation with the professor and her violent, over-wrought defense of abortion. We do not get inside her, to learn about her relationship with her father or her faith.

Instead, we get to know her through her banter with her roommate Shelby, an older girl but not one wiser in the ways of men. Indeed, Stone allows getting to know about Maud and her affair to take up the first third of the book. Only then do we get to probe more deeply into various characters. Moreover, Shell herself will play no significant role in these characters’ concerns about accountability. Only her estranged husband John Clammer will play a role—that is, be raised by Stone as a suspect, as will also a local madman and the mysterious vision of a priest. Except, these are nothing more than the MacGufins that appear in many a mystery novel, which this is not.

More important is Maud’s father, Eddie Stack, a retired policeman in New York who has lost his wife and now loses his only daughter. He asks if this is retribution because of past cooperation with a corrupt brother-in-law. He is distraught, ridden with guilt, now compounded because he and his daughter have gone their separate ways. And so he seeks a kind of atonement by asking to bury his daughter beside his wife in a church crypt. But a conservative Catholic priest is reluctant to do this, perhaps because of the scandal of her affair but more significantly because she has spurned her Church and has written a pro-abortion column for the university newspaper.

Equally significant is the impact of the girl’s death on Professor Brookman and his newly pregnant wife Ellie. He is filled with guilt for the affair and the disrespect he has shown to his wife. And all he cares for now is to ease his conscience, and to control how his wife will react to the affair.

Outside looking in is university counselor Jo Carr, a mature woman whom everyone leans upon for advice. She was once a nun in South America, and lost her faith after witnessing the evil fostered by a priest who identified with the poor. Also present is Mary Pat, the wife of the university president, who has connections in the Church hierarchy and works to have Maud buried in the church beside her mother. The author himself was raised a Catholic, and here he offers a balanced interpretation, not often seen in the literary world, of the conflict between the beliefs held by the more conservative hierarchy and those by more liberal lay Catholics.

It is the impact of this girl’s accidental death on these people that matters to the author, and it represents the richest portion of this novel. As Messud writes, these “are certainly Christian narratives, but they’re ultimately examples of our human need to find meaning in what threatens to be incomprehensible events.” Basically, the unexpected death of Maud.

The impact of her death extends even to a local policeman, Lou Salmone. He once shared with Eddie Stack a New York beat. The major suspense of the novel is whether or not Stack will take revenge on Professor Brookman for the death of his daughter. And both Salmone and Jo Carr will take steps to prevent this. It is here, in the concealed emotions that impact all these characters, that the heart of the novel lies.

And so, will he or won’t he? That is, Stack take his revenge. The novel builds to his confrontation with Brookman. Whereupon we follow all these characters into the future, some impacted more than others by Maud’s death. But life continues on, the author seems to say. People adjust. This is what our existence brings. Moments of drama. Tragedy for some. And the accommodation to reality for others.

Michiko Kakutani sums up Stone’s intentions with this novel: “It explicates its characters’ hope that life is not completely random—‘people always want their suffering to mean something’—and their contradictory awareness of the dangers of religious certainty; their understanding that choices have moral consequences; and that innocents frequently are tangled and hurt in the crossfire.” All true, but not conveyed, I believe, felicitously by Stone. His work is too encumbered by the set-up that takes one-third of the novel. As well as by the complex emotions of Brookman, Stack, Jo Cobb, and policeman Salmone. Perhaps it would have been better to have concentrated only on Brookman and Stack, and gone still more deeply into their desire for redemption and absolution.

This is a predictable novel by an author nearing the end of his career. It is a kind of summing up. About life. About family relationships. About our trust in one another. But mainly about our faith and the meaning of our lives. It is also not a complex story, one that challenges the author intellectually or structurally. Thus, while he uses the structure of a mystery, with a death and a police investigation, he does not write a mystery. He examines, instead, the impact of the death of Maud on all the people in her life. Indeed, the “death” in the title re-enforces this intent. (April, 2017)

The Whites, by Harry Brandt (Richard Price)

This multi-level mystery novel from 2015 is true literature in every sense. It begins as a police procedural that establishes the bono fides of Billy Graves, a side-tracked police sergeant now assigned to the Night Watch in Manhattan. It is also a portrait of a once-heralded police team, the Wild Geese, whose members still love and support each other, even after some have left the force.

Interwoven also is the story of Milton Ramos, a renegade cop out to extract revenge for the personal injustices which life has dealt him. The ending, moreover, relies on a solution that is a classic of the mystery genre, and then humanizes that solution. And, finally, helping this work to a truly literary level is the moral issue raised by that solution in the minds and souls of characters whom both we as readers and Billy himself have become comfortable with.

The novel works on all levels. We are especially close to Billy and his wife Carmen, both of whom have endured tragedy in their past. They both love each other and are protective of each other. And Billy also remains especially close to four former policemen who were members of the Wild Geese. There is Pavlicek, now a real estate baron; Redman, now a funeral director; Whelan, now a building superintendent; and Yasmeen, now a campus security chief. Each will play a key role in this novel, as well as exemplify the ties of police brotherhood.

The title, The Whites, refers to the criminals the police have pursued obsessively but have failed to catch, not unlike the white whale that Ahab pursued. It is an ironic designation in terms of color (not race), but it also reflects the complexity of police duty and the frequent moral issues that are raised. The basic moral issue raised here is: should the guilty be punished? But also, should the past be forgotten? And: what is the nature of true justice, and who has the right to deliver that justice? It is a moral issue that is examined in all great literature, and here Price as Brandt is reaching for those heights—and achieving them.

But morality does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in the actions of human beings; and these human beings, in literature, need to exist in a specific world. In this case it is the island of Manhattan, yes, but it is also Manhattan at night, and even more significant it is the felony crime scene in Manhattan at night and the human beings responsible for catching the criminals in the name of justice. This is why the policemen are the prime movers of this novel, and why Price as Brandt has made such an effort to show us the cruelty that they confront, the frustration they often feel, and the camaraderie that keeps them going.

This camaraderie, indeed, is a key element of this novel, both for the resulting interaction it causes and for the humanization it brings to men whose blue uniform often makes all of them seem alike. As Kakutani writes in the Times: [Brandt’s] “ability to map his characters’ inner lives—all the dreams and memories and wounds that make them tick—results in people who become as vivid to us as real-life relatives or friends.”

And Billy Graves is the first to have any vulnerabilities. His police career was detoured before the start of this novel, when a bullet he fired at a criminal hit an innocent boy, and he became fodder for the tabloid press. This resulted in initial assignments to dead-end posts; but he has finally earned recognition, and been placed in charge of the Night Watch. However, his private life is also in travail, because his first wife had abandoned him after the shooting scandal and left him with two young sons. Now, he is married to Carmen, a nurse and a temperamental woman whom he loves but does not always understand.

And while we realize that Billy is a good man at heart, we begin reading about another cop, Milton Ramos, who also lost a wife and is left with a young daughter. But he reacts to his unfortunate situation very differently from how Billy does, and seeks revenge on someone for some unknown reason. And we sense he will confront Billy at the novel’s climax. As we follow Billy through his routine investigations, however, and watch as a new and violent crime confronts him with memories of his past, with his own white—and also reunites him with his colleagues of the past—this building confrontation with Ramos moves from the background to the foreground, drawing the reader into this novel even more, although we do not know what will prompt the climactic confrontation.

What is not clear to me is why Price chose a pseudonym for this novel. Is it to be part of a series? Is it the police aspect that makes it different from his other works? He dedicates it, in part, to a Carl Brandt. Is that a family member or a friend, perhaps a policeman, whom he wishes to recognize? Perhaps the most reasonable difference to be found in this novel is that it does not focus on a specific location in sociological terms, as in his previous novels, but rather on individuals in psychological terms. But why would this shift prompt him to use a pen name? In any event, the reason does not really matter.

This reader will continue to pursue the work of Richard Price. While he has his dedicated followers, his work has thus fear not entered the contemporary literary canon. Perhaps because of his subject matter, the underside, the criminal side, of daily life. But the underdogs of his novels—victims, pursuers, and perpetrators—are worthy subjects that we in our comfortable reading chairs tend to forget. And Price stands out because he portrays these people, even the most villainous, like Ramos here, as human beings. And he helps us realize that there are often reasons why they are what they are. (March, 2016)

Istanbul Passage, by Joseph Kanon

This 2012 work is superior Kanon, one of his best. It comes alive because of the moral issues that continually confront Leon Bauer, a businessman in Istanbul who accepts undercover jobs, jobs that support the Allied war effort, from an American named Tommy at the consulate. It becomes vividly alive also because of its vivid portrait of Istanbul in 1945, not only in the descriptive passages but also in the evocation of its history—a history that now includes the conflicting post-war interests of the Americans, the Soviets, and the Turks. Not to forget the Jews who came through seeking refuge in Palestine. It is even more intriguing because of a fascinating Colonel Altan, a cynical, and very European, member of the Turkish secret police.

The story begins when Tommy casually offers Leon one last job, to pick up Alexei, a Rumanian refugee who worked for the Germans in World War II and whom the Soviets wish to torture for information and the Americans wish to question. But all is not as it seems, and Leon is forced to assume responsibility for this potential war criminal and see that he reaches American hands. Indeed, the remainder of the novel revolves around this responsibility and Leon’s growing attachment to Alexei as he discovers the humanity in this suspicious and crafty man who has become a pawn in international intrigue. The novel’s moral complexity is intended from the start, for Leon obtains the help of Mihai to deal with Alexei—Mihai knows the local underworld because he runs the Jewish refugees to Palestine—and Mihai despises Alexei as one who persecuted the Jews back in Rumania.

It is Leon and Altan who are the most interesting characters. Leon because he is never quite sure what his actual responsibility is for Alexei and how far it goes; and because he faces a second moral quandary when he falls in love with Kay, the wife of an American embassy official, when he is himself already married. Indeed, he calls daily on his wife, who has fallen into a catatonic state after being traumatized by the sinking of a refugee ship carrying Jewish families to Palestine. In fact, the resettling of European Jews underscores the texture of this post-war period as well as the underground community of Istanbul, for it requires both pay-offs to Turks and a strategy to avoid the British blockade.

Colonel Altan underscores the political complexity of that period, as he must balance Turkish national interests, Istanbul police interests, and the interests of both the Americans and the Soviets. He acknowledges to Leon this balancing act, but not what he plans to do. And so, is he helping Leon or not; and is he plotting to turn Alexei over to the Americans or the Soviets? He is, indeed, a deceptive character, one who brings to mind the Claude Rains of Casablanca. In the end, it is he who controls the outcome, an outcome in which Kanon reveals a cynicism to match that of this character. It is not, for me, a completely satisfying outcome, but I am a romantic at heart, and Kanon is not.

Because of this intricate web of motivation on all sides, the meaning of, and the motivation behind, many of the conspirational dialogues are not always clear. The dialogue is convincingly real, but a second reading is often required. That is, Kanon’s characters often do not point out their frame of reference. The reader must deduce it himself. Another issue that never became clear to me is why Alexei appears to be wanted dead at the beginning of the novel, but then is wanted alive, in order to be interrogated, at the end of the novel. Or did I miss the motivation behind that first attempt on his life?

A minor disappointment is the revelation of the identity of a Soviet spy in the American consulate. It is on this premise that the Americans have asked Leon to bring Alexei in. But the mole turns out to be a minor character, about whom no motivation is given. Indeed, the person’s fate is unclear. The Americans have him, the text says. But it would make more sense to me if it said that the Soviets have him. Is there a typo here? Not likely. But it leaves me lost.

However, all this is minor because that revelation of the mole in the US diplomatic corps is not the point of the novel. The point is the moral quandaries that Leon faces. Should he betray the man he is left in charge of, the man he comes to respect and who trusts him? Also, should he betray Kay, his lover who is also married, or betray his wife? Indeed, one might also ask if Leon himself is not betrayed, both by the people around him, beginning with Tommy, and by the ideals he espouses. Leon’s actions at the end, and their interpretation, moreover, also add an irony that matches the cynicism of the author’s Istanbul environment.

To sum up, this is a superior post-war espionage novel that blends history, human drama, and moral dilemmas. It is about both justice and betrayal. Will justice be better served by rescuing this Rumanian, who himself betrayed the Jews, from the revengeful Soviets and then using him for the American’s own purposes? Will justice be served if Leon puts U.S. policy above his loyalty to Alexei, when he learns that the U.S. itself offers no loyalty to Alexei? Thus, it is a choice between betraying Alexei or betraying his government. Moreover, fascinated by his lover, should he betray a wife whom he has already betrayed with a mistress? And the work ends with Leon asking himself if, given the ironic situation he is in, can he free himself by a new betrayal?

Kanon twists himself and his hero into many physical corners as well as moral corners, such as when he and Alexei are taken off a refugee steamship headed to freedom. But he also knows that escaping one entrapment can lead his hero into another. This happens in the climactic confrontation of a prisoner exchange on a bridge, when a crossfire that solves an immediate problem leaves the hero facing still another issue. In this case, a physical entrapment has led him into a moral entrapment.

On to more Kanon, and, I understand, to his return to Berlin (November, 2015)

Warburg in Rome, by James Carroll

This is a religious thriller, and a good one, from one of my favorite authors, James Carroll. But this 2014 novel is not the literary work that I had hoped to read. What happened? My theory stems from the fact that of Carroll’s recent works, only one was a novel, and, indeed, a literary one. Whereas, the others were works of history—with the emphasis on Church history and power, the Church’s relations with the Jews, and American military might.

This novel represents a blend of those issues, and I sense that Carroll either thought his subject here did not reach the scale of his previous non-fiction works, or thought it would reach a broader audience as a novel. And he did want/need a broad public to be aware of this slice of Vatican history.

The story he tells is ironic, that the Vatican, with the collaboration of the American army, established a pipeline to help Nazi military officers and government leaders escape to Argentina. They worked together, in history, because both groups feared that Soviet military power would establish atheistic Communism in Europe; and had determined that these escaping Nazis could become a bulwark to help prevent this from happening. While the irony is that the same U.S. government that is allowing the Germans to escape is, in Carroll’s fiction, also helping to fit into the post-war world the Jewish people whom those Nazi leaders persecuted.

And so, in addition to its exposure of Church duplicity at the highest level, this work also raises both refugee issues and moral issues. These include the violent acts of terrorists, by both Germans and Zionist Jews; the guilt of the fictional characters who become involved in the intrigue among the Germans, the Jews, and the Vatican; and the commitment of these various characters to their ideals, in the wake of these revelations.

The basic story of the Vatican pipeline is true, says Carroll. His fictional story to complement it involves five main characters. These are an American government official, David Warburg, a Jew; an ambitious priest, Kevin Deane; a Red Cross worker, Marguerite d’Erasmo; an American military officer, Peter Mates; and an English nun, sister Thomas Aquinas. Some of these collaborate with each other, some work at cross-purposes. Two couples emerge from this intrigue, but they reach different resolutions.

Warburg has been sent by the U.S. government to Rome to aid Jews who have escaped German and Italian internment, and to help them settle in the U.S., Palestine, or other countries. He meets Marguerite, who is helping all refuges in Rome, especially Jews, and Father Deane, who serves Cardinal Spellman, and is as ambitious as Spellman, but who also expresses sympathy for the plight of the Jewish refugees.

The novel’s fictional story concerns the discovery by this idealistic trio of the reality of the pipeline, the involvement of the Vatican in providing the Nazis with the papers to emigrate, and the Americans, such as Mates, looking the other way for their own purposes. Whereupon, complications ensue, for violence intrudes on this “discreet” Vatican scheme, first when retreating German forces murder Jews and then when vengeful Jews seek to advance their cause through terrorist bombings in both Rome and Jerusalem.

It is this violence that challenges the idealistic beliefs of our trio. For one the challenge is to a belief in a vague Jewish faith; for another it is one’s conviction to remain in service to the Church; for another it is the ability to remain an idealist in the face of corruption everywhere; and for another the challenge is to retain one’s vocation in the face of failure and betrayal. And it is here that the novel reaches for the level of literature. If it does not succeed in doing so, it does lend more depth to all of its characters.

As a former priest, Carroll is adept at capturing both the emotions and the consciences of both good priests, like Father Deane, and bad priests. Among the latter is Father Roberto Lehmann, a Franciscan who is the key Vatican contact for the pipeline. Carroll establishes the mood and the thoughts of Deane, both when he is saying mass and when his conscience grasps his involvement at the fringes of the Nazi pipeline. Meanwhile, Carroll explores the rationalizing conscience of Father Lehmann, even as he comes to understand he has been sexually seduced to betray his pipeline friends.

At times, the political maneuvering among the Vatican officials, the Nazi sympathizers, the Jews, and the Americans can become complex and confusing. Indeed, I find such maneuvering often to be confusing in a thriller like this. Which only re-enforces for me that this is a thriller, that the emphasis is not on the characters themselves, as well delineated as they may be. No, it is story that matters here—the maneuvers themselves, and the message that the story carries. Namely, that the Vatican was more than complicit, was deeply involved at the highest level, in a pipeline designed to help Nazi officials escape Allied justice after World War II—the purpose being to use these officials later to combat the advance of Communist Russia.

In passing, I would note that despite the complexity of the plot, each time I picked up this novel I needed little help in recalling the overall situation. This is testimony to Carroll’s skill as a novelist and to the tightness of his structure. But more significant are the moral issues that the novel raises. Is it right to bomb a building, even without killing people? Is it right to assassinate one evil person rather than kill scores of innocent people? Is one culpable when betraying a person in order to reveal evil? Or in betraying one person in order to save another? And how much should one accept/believe in an institution or a vocation which contradicts one’s own beliefs?

Another theme of this novel is love. Both the love of mankind and love among individuals. Both spiritual love and sexual love. Both idealistic love and practical love. Both love of self and love of others. And the diverse resolutions of the human loves here bring home the complexity of love itself.

I do not expect more literary fiction from Carroll, but I will welcome any works that offer further insight into the Church and its spiritual mission in a world of pragmatic human beings. (March, 2015)