Laskin tells the story of a bookseller who finds himself pursued by shadowy forces in this debut bibliophilic thriller.
Seattle, 1975. Carl Traeger is a bookshop owner who doesn’t really like books. Books were the passion of his recently deceased lover and business partner, Paul, whose sudden death has left the 34-year-old Vietnam vet trying to figure out how to keep the business from going under. Additionally, Carl has just learned that his Aunt Sophie, who escaped Nazi Germany, has died. As if this wasn’t stressful enough, he is held up at gunpoint at night in the store by a man who demands to know where “it” is—though Carl has no idea what he means. Carl manages to disarm the man, but when he returns to his home later that night, he finds it ransacked. He flies to Philadelphia to settle his aunt’s estate, where a note left for him by Sophie tells him about a book that her Nazi husband smuggled out of Germany during the war: “I did not have the courage to destroy the book while I had the chance,” writes Sophie. “But I ask you to destroy it. Destroy it immediately. There is evil connected to that book. I can feel it.” Carl retrieves the book from a safe in his aunt’s house—which has also been ransacked—and returns to Seattle. Despite his aunt’s warning, he’s reluctant to destroy it before learning what it means. The harassment by unknown parties continues, but, with the help of the handsome gay police officer Randy McCutcheon, Carl figures out that it isn’t the book that these men are after but what’s hidden inside its binding: a birth certificate from April 20, 1889, that implies that Adolf Hitler had a twin brother! Now Carl’s task isn’t just surviving, but learning what secret organization is so interested in this information…and what living Hitlers may still be lurking in the shadows.
Laskin’s prose is taut and punchy, animated by an enthusiasm for the cloak-and-dagger machinations of the plot: “Someone wanted the book I had, badly enough to demolish my house and threaten my life with a pistol-packing goon. There was, therefore, no reason to assume they would hesitate to shoot first and ask questions later. So if I didn’t hand over the book like a good boy…my lease on life would be terminated prematurely.” The plot is, on its face, more than a little ridiculous, though Laskin plays it straight, allowing the hardboiled atmosphere to go mostly unpunctured despite some of the cartoonish developments. In the end, the novel works pretty well: The paranoia and fears of Nazi persecution read as a kind of cinematic projection of Carl’s grief over the death of Paul and his gay identity that he is forced to hide from society. The final product is more National Treasure than The Da Vinci Code—the revelations don’t ever pack much of a punch—but a likable cast of characters and an evergreen villain ensure a reading experience that is legitimately enjoyable.
A broad but entertaining mystery built on alternative history.