A grim and unsettling first novel about an aging war criminal and his implacable young pursuer.
In 1941, Friedrich Reile, 17, joined the German army and was attached to EK10A, a so-called “punitive organ.” Those it punished—that is, gassed, shot, killed—were for the most part Jews. On one particular day, for instance, it punished a total of 400, men, women, and children, by pouring rifle fire into them as they stood helplessly before their open graves, with Reile an active participant. After Germany’s collapse, Reile lied his way past various allied investigative boards and eventually out of that country into Canada, where he became a successful businessman, eluding capture for 50 years while leading his respectable if secret life. Meanwhile, young Dennis Connors, a cynical shell hiding ferocious commitment, is a historian employed by Canada’s Special Prosecution Unit, an ad hoc government body charged with bringing Nazi war criminals to trial. The unit’s record is dismal, though not all of its failure is the SPU’s fault. Evidence is hard to assemble. Witnesses grow old, in some cases confused, increasingly uncertain of what was once their very reason for being. The criminals themselves grow old—and die unpunished. Now, six years after its formation, the SPU has heard its own death knell. Funding has dried up, mostly because what was once so energizing a mission is in danger of becoming quaint. Except for Dennis, the last of the SPU warriors. And Dennis knows about Reile, wants him caught and tried, wants him—publicly—to face up to his innate monstrosity. No one has to tell Dennis how late in the day it is. Too late? Maybe not. At least not for Dennis’s unique approach to retribution.
A human face for “the banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt’s still serviceable phrase: sharply observed and well written, but unrelentingly painful to read.