The typical Hitler thriller has a form as predictable as a John Wayne western and elements as classic as the saloon brawl, the gunfight on an empty street and the girl. The plot isn’t new but the sheer numbers of these books currently on the stands indicates that Hitler and his children have replaced sharks and airports as the grist of the thriller mill.
These novels are no more about Hitler and Nazis than Snow White is about witchcraft. This Hitler is not the Hitler of history but the Hitler of myth: the archetypal rat. As a villain he is a welcome change from faceless multinationals and inflation. Whether shrill and paranoid, as in H.H. Kirst’s Twilight of the Generals (Collins, $12.95), or the clever sadist of Gus Weill’s The Führer Seed (Gage, $12.95), Hitler is devoid of redeeming qualities. He can be hated, reviled and summarily dispatched with no nagging liberal sense of guilt. In the fashion of mythical villains, Hitler is also immortal. Kill the
body and the wickedness lives on, inherited, cloned or remembered, to be conveniently disinterred for use by later generations. Thus, Weill gives us Hitler’s son, Kurt, the “Führer seed,” whose self-effacing public image conceals a nasty man who strangles cats and plots to get his finger on the NATO nuclear button. Lest cat strangling and kinky sex are insufficient, Kurt is also racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and profane. Clearly, whoever kills this man does the world a favor.
Hitler as villain solves tiresome questions of moral ambiguity. Although powerful and surrounded by followers, the myth is man and can be stopped. So, in the classic confrontation between good and evil, enter the hero who will face down the dragon single-handedly. This man is no super-agent James Bond, loaded with technological gadgets, but a little man of the people, armed only with intelligence and a pure heart. Harry Bendicks, of Ib Mélchior’s The Watchdogs of Abaddon (Fitzhenry &
Whiteside, $14.25), is a retired Hollywood cop relying on research, a long memory and his OSS experience to lead him to the Nazi conspirators. They have a nuclear bomb. Harry has brains and a need for revenge.
Revenge is a common desire of the heroes. Memories of old atrocities lend credence to their dedicated pursuit of evil and also legitimize acts that, in less pristine circumstances or involving less virtuous people, might smack of vigilante raids or terrorism. The best example is Max Levy of The Führer Seed, who witnessed his parents’ dreadful death in a concentration camp. Revenge has made Max the top assassin in the Israeli secret service, ready to kill Arabs or Nazis as the occasion demands. Max is strong, silent, thrifty, clean and charitable. Against this paragon are ranged Hitler, joined by Libya’s Colonel Khadafy and a horde of Nazi perverts and Arab fanatics. Max’s weapons, besides a near-genius IQ, are his single-minded devotion to killing and his style. Max’s style is death with the personal touch: one nasty is choked on the cap of a catsup bottle; another is smothered in the cellophane from his freshly laundered shirt.
The archetypal rat meeting the righteous hero might be enough for some but the real heart of the Hitler thrillers is the Great Conspiracy. Hitler resurrected is, like Dracula, transformed and requiring converts. Nazis are everywhere and whatever they touch spells danger. A mere videotape in Abaddon might be sufficient to draw the marching legions out: “Rise with me,” screams Hitler’s grandson. “Together we shall purge the world . . . begin anew the realm of a thousand years.” Attached to a small nuclear holocaust, it should do the trick. A scrap of paper in George Markstein’s The Goering Testament (Clarke, Irwin, $14.95) is enough to wreck world order. Nazi conspirators plot a world take-over tacitly supported by the entire world intelligence network.
Less melodramatic fcut more interesting is Twilight of the Generals. Kirst endows his Hitler with many of the characteristics of the Richard Nixon of Watergate. The setting of the novel is Germany, 1933, and the focus is the Blomberg-Fritsch affair, leading to the purge of the German general staff, but the message is clear. There are intrigues, cover-ups, dirty tricks and sexual blackmail; only the names have been changed. The values of the Hitler inner circle are summed up as: “If you can’t win the heart and mind of an unwelcome opponent, kick him in the [expletive deleted].”
In the face of conspiracy, governments appear debased or deluded. In The Führer Seed, the U.S. president, a
Jimmy Carter likeness, allows in a snide parody of power politics that young Mr. Hitler is the “kind of fellow you’d buy a used car from.” The Israeli prime minister is a “schizophrenic ... with a basic mistrust of people.” When Heron, the reporter-hero of Testament, confronts British Intelligence with the threat to “sell the story. The whole story. I’m going to expose this crowd,” no one is worried. No one in power is “clean.” Only little people can be trusted. Foremost, one can really only trust oneself.
Trusting only oneself, rugged self-determination in the face of enormous odds is the final characteristic that endears these works to fans of Star Wars and Superman. In a mad and threatening world, one man can take a stand. Which brings us to Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer of Scotland Yard and the best thriller of them all: Len Deighton’s SS-GB (Clarke, Irwin, $13.95), and Nazi-occupied Britain, 1941. From its opening line—“Himmler’s got the King locked up in the Tower of London”—this encyclopedic fantasy combines all the elements of the Hitler novels. Moving through an occupied London bombed, beaten and terrifyingly recognizable, Archer must please his Nazi masters, rescue the King, halt the development of the atomic bomb and survive to resist another day. He is a prince in disguise rescuing a king from a castle, a variation of the oldest fantasy we know. And in the final analysis, these books are just that— fairy-tale fantasies to while away the decade of diminishing returns.
MACLEAN’S BEST-SELLER LIST
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