Top critical review
A decent if clumsy foray into WWII
Reviewed in the United States on November 7, 2017
I’m not well-read when it comes to spy novels. Or World War II novels for that matter. But this seemed to be the most interesting option for the Kindle First books of the month so I gave it a shot. I have however, read some historical fiction. As a historical piece, I can say that this was a pretty insightful account on what living in Germany, particularly Berlin, was like during the Nazi movement. As a fictional piece, though, it was pretty disappointing. For me, it made a lot of promises that it didn’t fulfill and in the end I was left wondering why this was even a fiction novel rather than a historical non-fiction.
Fritz Kolbe was a real spy in World War II, taking advantage of his position as a clerk in the foreign ministry to smuggle Nazi documents to the Allies in an effort to impede the German war effort. As a historical figure, he was brave, noble and important. As a fictional character he’s pretty boring though. (Spoiler warning: there will be mild spoilers, but I’ll do my best not to reveal too much that’s not the beginning of the book.) His story begins in South Africa, which is where he lives with his daughter, who means everything to him. When he’s recalled to Germany, he leaves and puts his daughter in hiding. If I didn’t know that this character was an important spy already, I’d have guessed by his wants and desires that he would have stayed away from Nazi Germany, which he hates with a passion, and stay in hiding with his daughter until the whole thing boils over. In fact, that’s exactly what he WAS going to do until a colleague convinces with a thorough guilt trip to return back home with him.
This is just the beginning of my problem with him as a fictional character. Why did this colleague and friend, who turns out not to be a great friend anyway, convince Fritz better than his own daughter, who hated him for the idea of leaving her? For that matter, why does he hate the Nazis so vehemently? Okay that is a weird question, I know. Who needs a reason for that? But his hatred for them seemed to cut deep, despite the fact that he was out of the country when they took to power. Surely as a German citizen, there must have been SOME patriotism in his mind. Surely he would have to see the horrors for himself before he makes such snap judgements? But from the beginning, without any real inciting incident, he decided that they are his enemy. The author drives this point home many times with childish scenes of the main character making rude gestures at them behind their back and stabbing Hitler’s picture in the newspaper with a fork. As the story goes on, Fritz is given real reason to hate Nazis and this part was easy to accept. Who could see their home falling apart around them, their friends and family dying, and not feel hatred? But getting to that point felt clumsy and forced.
Another thing that bothered me a bit: for a spy novel, there really isn’t a whole lot of dramatic tension. For the most part, Fritz is able to sneak documents to his American allies with little trouble. The prologue of the book starts with a flash-forward, showing us a scene where Fritz is apparently about to be caught and is forced to dispose of evidence. I assumed this was the climax of the novel that everything was leading up to, or at least a pivotal dark point in the character’s story. However, when the author reached that point, it turned out to be nothing. He literally wrote something like “it was just the landlord.” Talk about setting up false promises.
Though the novel is about a spy, the real story lies in Fritz Kolbe’s personal relationships. Mainly that of his girlfriend/mistress, his daughter and his long-time friend. He forsakes all of these relationships to pursue his spy career. That is to be expected. After all, that’s what stories are about. The main character puts his needs above others or neglects his friends and allies in some way and in the end, he either reconciles or he doesn’t, but learns something from the experience in any case. That part was also sort of glossed over here. I feel like the book had a couple loose threads to tie up in the end and instead just left those threads hanging with the promise that the character was going to get to those things, except the book ends before we get to read about them.
After all these gripes, why am I still giving the book three stars? Because as a historical piece, it was fairly poignant and informative. I know more about how the Nazi occupation affected the German people than I did before. I also answered a Jeopardy question because of this book, so I can actually say learning something paid off. (The predecessor to the CIA was the OSS.)
The writing is pretty decent, if a tad simple and clumsy in places (stabs Hitler with a fork.) Perhaps I can chalk some of that to the translation.
So all in all, it was a decent read. I feel like I actually would have enjoyed it more as a non-fiction (I realize there are non-fiction books about Fritz Kolbe, but those aren’t what I got for free on Amazon Prime.) The parts that I enjoyed the most were the parts where I was learning something and I surely would have learned a lot more from a nonfiction book. Instead, as this is fiction, I am forced to compare it to standards of fiction and how stories are built. One might argue, “well, this is a real story, so it doesn’t matter if his motivations are realistic.” However, the author even admits that the character Fritz is a loose portrayal of the real man. His daughter was actually a son, his mistress didn’t actually exist. This is a fictional character, so I shall judge him so. In any case, it read fast and held my interest enough to finish it. Pus it was free so... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯