Monday, October 1, 2018

Review of The One Man by Andrew Gross (Minatour 2016)

Nathan Blum has managed to escape from the Krakow ghetto and make his way to America via neutral Sweden. There he enrols in the armed services, being assigned to an intelligence office in Washington DC given his language skills, though he longs for active service. The President is about to give him his wish, though it seems like a suicide mission. He’s asked if would parachute back into Poland, break into Auschwitz, find a physics professor, Alfred Mendl, whose knowledge of gaseous diffusion is vital for the Manhattan Project, then break-back out again and get the professor to safety. The odds are massively stacked against him: hundreds of thousands pass through the camp, but only two have ever escaped. Knowing that his family are dead and that the Allies have deemed the mission critical, Blum agrees to go. He’s fluent in Polish and German and he’s the skills and wits to survive and escape a Nazi ghetto, but getting in and out of a death camp will test him to the limits.

The One Man is a historical thriller set in 1944. The premise is quite straightforward: send a man into Auschwitz to locate another and get him out and to safety. Of course, doing that is far from straightforward. That is Nathan Blum’s challenge. And he has three days to do it; the Polish resistance due to ambush a work detail laying railway tracks outside the camp and then a plane from England will land in a nearby field to pick them up. The target is a physics professor, Alfred Mendl, who is vital to the Manhattan Project but didn’t get out of Europe in time. Blum manages to enter the camp, but then everything starts to unravel as he struggles to find Mendl, survive the guards, navigate camp life, and stay ahead of a German intelligence officer who’s hunting for him. Gross does a very nice job of using Auschwitz as a setting for a page-turning thriller without denigrating what happened there. In fact, he gives a good insight into the workings of the camp and life inside, populating it with believable characters and situations, and is respectful to the victims of the Holocaust. Yet, he doesn’t forget he’s telling a thriller. The three day time limit and the chase by the Abwehr officer repeatedly ratchets up the tension, plus there are some nice twists that create a strong affective response. Indeed, the plot is for the most part very well put together, the only weak spots for me being how the Abwehr officer picked up Blum’s trail and the intro/outro which felt a little stilted. This is more than made up for by the rest of the story, particularly the denouement and the final twist, which were excellent. The result was a thriller with first-rate historicisation, sense of place, characterisation, and a compelling plot.

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