Novelist Joseph Kanon, whose specialty is taut postwar espionage thrillers, laughs at an inevitable question: “What kind of spy do you think you would have made?”
“A bad one,” Kanon says, between bites of croissant at a Manhattan cafe near the New York Public Library, the Fifth Avenue landmark where he writes all his books. “You could read it in my face in two seconds. Which is why nobody ever tried to recruit me.”
Kanon, 73, may never have been a CIA spook (honest!), but this former publishing executive knows his way around a good story, such as the one he tells in his new novel, The Accomplice (Atria, Nov. 5), a twisty page-turner about Nazi hunters.
“One of the things about fiction is that you can make it up,” Kanon says dryly.
Imagination is just a part of the equation for Kanon, whose bestsellers include The Good German (which became a 2006 movie starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett) and Defectors, the story of a slippery American agent who defects to the Soviet Union. Kanon steeps himself in historical research (“you just read everything you can get your hands on”)and prowls the atmospheric cities (from Istanbul to Berlin to Moscow) where his books are set. Location scouting, he calls it.
His latest novel took him to Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital notorious for harboring escaped Nazi war criminals. The Accomplice, Kanon’s ninth book, begins in Hamburg, Germany, in 1962. Dying Nazi hunter Max Weill enlists his nephew, a CIA deskman, to track down Otto Schramm, a Nazi doctor who performed horrific experiments on children at Auschwitz.
Weill has personal motives: Schramm (a fictional character who works at Auschwitz under the monstrous Josef Mengele) was the officer who sent Max’s young son to the gas chamber. And he forced Weill, a Jewish physician, to help with the Nazis’ appalling experiments.
“I think one of the more fascinating parts of the Nazi operation is how they enlisted the complicity of their victims in these crimes,” says Kanon. “To me, the really interesting question is, how do you render justice for crimes so vast?”
He had been to Auschwitz (“horrifying” and “very moving”) and was struck by the “special horror” of doctors who justified their evil experiments on children because they were “going to die anyway.”
After World War II, a number of infamous Nazis—among them Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann—fled to Argentina, actively recruited by President Juan Perón.
Kanon wondered, “How did they get to Buenos Aires? Did their neighbors know, did their families know? Did they have a different identity? How were they living?”
In Schramm’s case, he has a daughter in Buenos Aires—Hanna, a beautiful young woman (and obligatory femme fatale) who may hold the key to her father’s whereabouts. Kanon, whose novels traffic heavily in gray areas, does not think the children of Nazis should be held accountable for their parents’ actions. “I think these kids are in a bind,” he says. “It’s one of those conundrums. Noteverything has to have an answer.”
Kanon, who lives in Manhattan and is married to the literary agent Robin Straus, made it to the pinnacle of publishing with top jobs at Houghton Mifflin and Dutton—editing everyone from Muriel Spark to Thomas McGuane—before he caught the novel-writing bug.
On vacation in New Mexico in 1995, he visited Los Alamos, site of the Manhattan Project, and had a “lightbulb” moment: What if a crime (a murder) had been committed amid work on the atomic bomb?
He began writing Los Alamos (1997) in secret,because, he says, “what would be more embarrassing than a publisher who can’t write? I found that I loved doing it, and the rest is kind of a Cinderella story because I wrote the book quickly and it worked and I was able to be a writer.”
All his books since have dealt with the postwar era: McCarthyism, the Cold War, duplicitous spies with motives that keep you guessing until the last page.
With the testing of the atomic bomb, the world “shifted on its axis,” Kanon says, an “extraordinarily significant” event in the same way the Holocaust was a “dividing line.” In other words, catnip for a writer born in 1946.
With The Accomplice in bookstores, Kanon is back at the library, working on a new novel.
“We’re going back to Berlin in the next one. I can’t stay away from Berlin, it’s been a great subject,” he says of the city, which also starred in The Good German and Leaving Berlin.
This time, he’s writing about East Berlin in the 1960s, after the wall goes up.
“You now know more than my publisher knows about this, by the way,” Kanon, the former publisher, says, laughing.
Jocelyn McClurg, the former books editor at USA TODAY, is a freelance writer in New York.