Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Review of Black Cross by Greg Iles (1995, Harper)

January 1944. The Allies are preparing for to cross the Channel but there are rumours that the Nazis have a deadly surprise for them – Sarin and Soman gases, both much more deadly than anything the Allies have in their armoury. It is being developed and tested in Totenhausen, a Nazi camp that conducts medical experiments to test and develop the toxic gases. Churchill and the head of SOE, Duff Smith, hatch a plan to halt the use of the gases by bluffing the Germans into thinking that the Allies have the capability to exact revenge at scale. It involves smuggling their own experimental, unstable supply of Sarin into Germany and releasing it at Totenhausen. It will, however, kill both the concentration camp inmates as well as their captors. Churchill reasons that the inmates will die anyway and their sacrifice will save tens of thousands of lives. Eisenhower is set against the mission, but Churchill is convinced it is necessary. One of the men picked for the secret job, Jonas Stern, a Zionist guerilla fighter from Palestine, is prepared to sacrifice his own people for the greater good; the other Mark McConnell, an American pacifist and poisonous gas expert, is much more reluctant to participate in mass murder. They are flown into Northern Germany, where from the start their mission runs into trouble, leaving the two men to improvise, their moral dilemmas multiplying as they seek a way to destroy the camp, save as many inmates as possible, and steal secrets, knowing that the chances of success and escape are diminishing with each hour they are there.

Black Cross is a thriller set at the start of 1944 involving a secret Allied mission into Germany to destroy a camp that is producing and testing deadly poisonous gases. The action adventure of infiltrating Nazi Germany to perform a mission is given a twist through a series of moral dilemmas and Sophie’s choices and the selection of the two men selected to undertake the task. Mark McConnell is a pacifist and conscientious objector who is asked to perform mass murder for the greater good. Jonas Stern is a German Zionist who has no qualms using violence for political ends, but is formerly local to the area and may know people in the camp they are to destroy. Their inside agent is a nurse dedicated to saving lives, not taking them. The three of them are persuaded that since all the inmates are to die in medical experiments anyway, hastening their demise for liberation of the continent is the right thing to do. But executing the plan in practice, especially when you’re in situ and things are not going as hoped, is fraught. Iles spends the first part of the book patiently setting the scene, lining up the characters, building their relationships, and creating empathy for the camp inmates. Once McConnell and Stern are in Germany the pace shifts gears and he quickly ratchets up the tension. It all seems a little far-fetched but the story hook, dilemmas, characters, and twist and turns keep the pages turning with no let up. The result is a thought provoking action thriller, though the moral aspect seemed to get a little lost towards the end, with none of the characters reflecting in any depth on whether they’d pursued the right course of action and its consequences.

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