STRANDS OF WAR by Jean Alexander Kemeny


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Long, uncompelling strands--as the first-person narrations of six German and American characters (none of them solidly engaging) slowly lead, 1937-1945, to a disappointing finale: a minor knot of suspense and violence on the coast of Maine. One of the six is Martin Bormann, that weary mainstay of WW II ""faction"": here, in foul-mouthed memos, he keeps track of a private, secret spy-network--foreigners forced into espionage via sexual blackmail. Meanwhile, we read the diaries of one of Bormann's blackmail victims: foul bigot Henry ""Pudge"" Thurston, a New England blueblood, living in Cape Charlotte, Maine, sending stray bits of naval data through a spy-chain to Germany. Meanwhile, too, we follow German soldier Hannes Henkel (who spent his youth in the US) through the war years--enthusiastically joining the SS, happily exterminating Jews. A young, disillusioned U-boat captain will also offer his thoughts--in letters home to his wife. And, most longwindedly, Kemeny includes the diaries, from age eight, of little Emma Picketing of Cape Charlotte--complete with dense pages of kiddie-trivia sure to alienate any readers hoping for WW II intrigue/action. (The sixth, least relevant narrator is Henry's semi-estranged wife Buffy--running a yacht-building company and writing novels from her wheelchair.) How will all these characters come together? Well, when 1945 finally rolls around, Bormann decides to smuggle a fortune in stolen diamonds to America: his courier will be Hannes, traveling by U-boat to Maine--where reluctant spy Henry has been ordered to help Hannes (now with a fake US identity) sneak safely ashore. But the landing scheme goes awry; the U-boat sinks; Hannes, wounded, reaches Cape Charlotte alive, but without the diamonds; and the ensuing treasure-hunt will lead to violence involving Hannes, Henry, and innocent-bystander Emma, now 13. First-novelist Kemeny has some solid, if unoriginal, WW II-thriller ideas here. Unfortunately, however, well over the novel's first half is given over to unselective, uneven background material; the most prominent characters are the least likable ones; and even the suspense-finale, when it arrives at long last, is mismanaged--with all the crucial details saved for a feverish 1955 epilogue. See, most recently, Richard Ben Sapir's Spies (p. 597) for far more deft and involving treatment of the Nazi-spies-in-America theme.

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 1984
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin