The Accomplice is a top-notch historical thriller that combines style, excitement and intelligent story telling to stunning effect. Kanon has a decent body of work behind him, very readable thrillers that explore the moral dilemmas and divided loyalties individuals face when they are drawn into conflict, be it war or Cold War. The Accomplice is a cut above those novels, this is Kanon’s best writing for a long time, maybe even his best ever. All the good qualities spread throughout his earlier work combined together in one story; beautifully choreographed and delivered. This novel navigates the moral maze, re-examining what it is to be an accomplice in a variety of relationships and circumstances. The Accomplice is a polished thriller, a slow burn that gathers pace and intensity and is ultimately a very satisfying read.
I’ve been hoping for this book for some time, ever since Kanon’s first novel Los Alamos was published in 1997 in fact. That was an intelligent and morally complex novel of spying, a fictional reflection on real events at the Manhattan Project during WWII. The Accomplice matches Los Alamos for it’s intelligence and complexity and it has real heart. This is a story readers can become emotionally involved in.
Hamburg 1962. Aaron tries to convince Max to pack in his job, his crusade, as a Nazi hunter. Max’s heart can’t take it anymore, Aaron suggests he retire to Israel or America. But Aaron doesn’t realise Max summoned him from America to take over the organisation, he wants to retire but also wants the organisation to continue after he is gone. Max just got Pidulski but there are many war criminals still out there, Mengele and Schramm for instance. Aaron doesn’t have the same passion for Nazi hunting. He doesn’t feel the same connection to the past as Max does, even though his own mother died in Germany after Aaron and his father escaped, something his father felt guilt over for the rest of his life:
“She didn’t die because she stayed. She died because they killed her…” [Max offers]
The dead haunt Max, he is resentful of Simon Wiesenthal claiming the credit for capturing Eichmann, grabbing all the funds. The old man is applying his best efforts to emotional blackmailing Aaron when his friend Fritz Gruber a ‘decent’ journalist turns up. The three men chat, as Fritz leaves, Max rises from his seat instantly stumbling, muttering ‘him’, as he falls. It’s his heart playing up but he has seen a ghost, Schramm – right there walking past the café. He tries to tell Aaron and Fritz but they only have Max’s health in mind, they think he’s rambling. After all, Schramm is dead. Max revives in the St. Georg hospital but his condition will never improve. First chance Max gets he pleads with Aaron to get Schramm, second in command to Mengele at Auschwitz, the man responsible for Max’s son Daniel’s death. When Max and Daniel arrived at Auschwitz Otto Schramm recognised him, the two worked in the same hospital before the war. Schramm told Max he had a job for him as a doctor, told him to leave the boy, he would see him again after the delousing. Schramm knew the boy would die in the gas chamber, all the while talking to Max as if nothing was happening. It was then that Max became complicit in the camp experiments, although it’s far more nuanced than that. This is the first example of an accomplice.
After the war Otto Schramm fled to Argentina, he later changed his name to Braun, then worried about being captured by the Israelis he faked his death. Why would he be foolhardy enough to show up in Hamburg now? Fritz finds out that Doro Lessing, Schramm’s ex-wife, is being buried. At the funeral Aaron sees Hanna Crane, Schramm’s daughter, for the first time. Schramm eventually turns up but he has a bodyguard and the two men can’t get near him, alerted he flees back to South America.
Mossad want firm evidence before helping Aaron. When Max dies, Aaron takes a look at the files on Schramm, the grotesque torture and murder orchestrated by Mengele and his people, he is horrified and motivated. The best way to get to Schramm is through his daughter Hanna. So Aaron engineers a meeting, it isn’t long before he’s involved with Hanna. Just how compromised is she by her father? As the net closes on Schramm, Mossad and the CIA have their own agendas.
Nothing is black and white in this exploration of human frailty and the complexity of compromise, even in the hunt for a war criminal. When Schramm tries to squirm out of his responsibility for his crimes trotting out the old defence: ‘I was just obeying orders’ it’s easily refuted. But the book places it’s other characters, Aaron and Hanna, in the midst of choices that are not either wholly good or bad, the morality of each decision has to be weighed, it’s a true test of character. I don’t want to give anything away but as readers we are faced with considering the how we would react as the situation changes. The Accomplice is about identity and being faced with decisions that go to the very heart of who you are.
Kanon draws the setting subtly, the dialogue seems right, and the writing is taut and spare. Weaving in and it of real history is elegantly and cleverly done. The most impressive historical thriller I have read since The Elegant Lie by Sam Eastland.
Paul Burke 5/5
The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon
Simon & Schuster UK 9781471162657 hbk Nov 2019