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After the brilliance of Sleeping Dogs (1978), Ross took a bad turn with the Ludlum-style nonsense of The 65th Tape. But this solid WW II thriller--though overlong and largely unoriginal (like Paul Chevalier's The Grudge, it's heavily indebted to Eye of the Needle)--is something of a recovery. The Nazi-spy-in-England here is reluctant Wilhelm Sommer, a history teacher (with a frigid, top-Nazi wife) who--in prewar 1939--is trained in spycraft, then sent to London disguised as Thomas Price, a real Englishman who has died in Germany. The Sommer/Price mission? To quietly gather and transmit information in aid of Germany's invasion plans. But, since his Nazi spymasters are incompetent, ""Tom Price"" is soon under surveillance by the British; his new best friend and his new boss (at London U.) are both undercover agents; and the plan, of course, is to nurse Price along, feeding him good info and, later, bad stuff. And only after a year or so--during which Price marries a sex-mad widow, who then leaves him with her little daughter--does he figure out what's going on. So then, while the British continue to monitor and protect Price (even helping him to cover up a murder), he secretly sets up an alternate communication route--by duping a network of British Communists--and uses it to transmit naval secrets, which he has obtained via blackmail (thanks to a groaner of a coincidence). Finally, however, by August 1942, the British know that Price knows that they know: they're ready to use him (and his alternate conduit) to feed the Nazis fake data on the Allies' African invasion. And Price himself--affected by a happy new marriage, fatherhood, and the combat death of his chum's brother (a result of Price's spying, perhaps)--is ready to renounce his mission. So, complete with an ironic denouement (connected to Communist spies), this is a scenario loaded with potential resonance: conflicting loyalties, amoral spymasters, historical touchstones. Unfortunately, however, anti-hero Sommer/Price remains murky in his motivations, never generating the requisite sympathy; and an over-complicated, often implausible plot isn't helped by a parade of cameos (Eisenhower, Guy Burgess, etc.) or some belabored writing. Overall, then: sturdy entertainment for devotees of double-cross espionagerie, but without the emotional grab to sustain a wider suspense audience.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1981
Publisher: Atheneum