Terrifically engaging and pertinent tale of the New York City bomb squad that foiled German terrorist plots against the United States at the outbreak of World War I.
Vanity Fair contributor Blum (The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush, 2011, etc.) masterly retrieves this largely forgotten, haunting history of Germany’s subversive attempts to halt the U.S. ability to send munitions to the Allies fighting against it in Europe. The author pursues the key players in an episodic narrative: the agents of the Kaiser’s secret intelligence service, the Abteilung IIIB, with commander Walter Nicolai extending its tentacles across the Atlantic to fund a campaign of shipping terror amid the New York and New Jersey docks; the members of the New York Police Bomb and Neutrality Squad, led by the enterprising Capt. Tom Tunney, who had lately infiltrated the anarchist Brescia Circle and diverted its attempt to bomb St. Patrick’s Cathedral; and the strange and troubled Ivy League literature professor Erich Muenter, who went underground after poisoning his wife in 1906 and emerged as terrorist Frank Holt in 1915. The audacity of the German operatives, who received easy support from the plethora of German immigrants to America—e.g., the Hamburg-America Line officer Paul Koenig, who policed the shipyards in his thuggish way (“a thick-bodied, bull-necked man with long, drooping arms and iron fists that could seem as hell-bent as a runaway trolley car when they were pounding away at your skull”) was matched by the ingenuity of Tunney, who had a nose for the right clue and method of infiltration. Blum creates some memorable portraits, accompanied by a lively gallery of photos, and keeps the heroic good-versus-evil plot simmering along in a nicely calibrated work of popular narrative history.
Instructive, yes, but also as engrossing as good detective fiction.