A Czech spy-chief battles the rising Nazi menace in this engrossing thriller.
Major František Moravec has no experience as a spy when he’s summoned to an important post in Czechoslovakia’s military intelligence branch. But he does have a shrewd mind, a self-effacing manner that hides a maverick streak, a disillusioned knowledge of human motives and, rarest of all in the low, dishonest decade of the 1930s, he has more than a shred of honor. While he struggles to navigate Prague’s cynical bureaucracy and whip his underlings into shape—including an amateur pornographer and an 83-year-old agent who refuses to file reports—he faces an intelligence nightmare: a surging Nazi Germany that is covertly manipulating German nationalist groups in the Sudetenland with an eye toward adding that Czech territory to the Reich. Moravec relies on a troubled asset, a German-Czech-American schoolteacher with a clouded past and a bitter grudge. And he has a whale—or maybe a piranha—of a nemesis in Gestapo chief Reinhardt Heydrich, the epitome of cunning, cruelty and corruption with a cold eye trained on the Sudetenland while fighting murderous turf battles with Hitler’s other satraps. (The scenes of Nazi factional infighting are a tour-de-force of blood-curdling fun.) This first installment of Xavier’s Moravec’s War series, based on real-life figures and events, has everything—subtle characters, a great hero, a mesmerizing villain, tense intrigue and action and stylish, psychologically acute prose. It’s also a rich evocation of pre-war Mitteleuropa, steeped in the atmospherics of high-society soirées, beer-hall rallies and train-station assignations amid a mood of encroaching, unstoppable tragedy. As Moravec strains to perceive the threats to his country despite the deepening gloom, Xavier’s tale reads like a John le Carré novel transposed to a geopolitical jungle that’s far grimmer than the Cold War.
A fine, gripping page-turner infused with a deep historical sensibility.