It’s 1943, two years before V-E Day, and everybody knows the Germans are beaten—especially the Germans. So what’s to be done about it?
Strategies vary, of course. Roosevelt has called for unconditional surrender, a demand that worries the Brits, who feared it might be counterproductive in the way draconian measures often are, cornering the rat, as it were. Second Front, Stalin keeps repeating with Slavic stolidity, while holding his options open. Among the members of the German high command the imperative is to “cut our losses,” but Hitler, Himmler, Bormann et al., take differing approaches in support of diverse agendas. With this as background, young Willard Mayer is suddenly summoned to the Oval Office, where he’s given an unexpected assignment. Mayer, a former Princeton philosophy professor currently serving as an intelligence analyst with the OSS (precursor to the CIA), has managed to impress FDR with a book of his titled On Being Empirical. As a result, he’s plucked from a pool of midlevel colleagues and asked to examine the facts surrounding the massacre of 5,000 Polish soldiers, allegedly by the Soviets. This task, however, is mere prelude. The Big Three—Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin—are about to meet in Teheran, and the president offers Willard an invitation to come along as a kind of assistant to illness-ridden Harry Hopkins. Self-assured Willard—described by one enamored lady as “the cleverest man I know”—takes it all in stride. And in the history-making events that follow, he plays the pivotal role he clearly regards as his due.
Again, the protean Kerr (Dark Matter, 2002, etc.) nails his setting and does justice to a large fictitious/for-real cast, but an emotionally inaccessible protagonist—who sees an affinity between himself and Hitler, inasmuch as both are without “moral values”—is hard to warm to.