The Accomplice

Joseph Kanon

Simon & Schuster

Review by Malcolm Forbes

Joseph Kanon’s historical thrillers play out in the shadow of the Second World War and the heat of the Cold War.

Physical and emotional wreckage from the former and high-stakes tension from the latter heightened the drama in one of his recent works, Leaving Berlin (2014), set during the Airlift in 1949. Kanon’s latest novel – his ninth – also opens in Germany, this time in 1962, a year after the erection of the Berlin Wall. However, instead of a story of cloak-and-dagger intrigue on both sides of the divide, Kanon serves up a tale of cat-and-mouse adventure in Hamburg – and beyond.

His hero is Aaron Wiley, a lowly CIA intelligence analyst. On a trip to Germany, Aaron is asked by his uncle, Max Weill, to stop chasing Communists and join him in hunting Nazis. When Max sights Otto Schramm, the Auschwitz doctor who sent his son to the gas chambers, he is rocked by this blast from the past – the impact all the more forceful since Schramm is supposed to be dead. Aaron steps in and vows to track Schramm down. After sifting Max’s war criminal files – “all the paperwork of an obsession” – and conducting his own sleuth-work, he trails his quarry to Buenos Aires.

With the change of location comes a change of gear. Kanon ratchets up both the sense of mystery and element of excitement as Aaron navigates the city, makes his inquiries and gets increasingly out of his depth. At an embassy party he learns the hard way that Argentine high society is riddled not only with Nazis who fled justice but also Nazi-sympathisers – from deluded priests who facilitated escapes down ratlines to South America to corrupt officials who authorised safe havens and new identities.

Aaron closes in on Schramm and realises he won’t go down without a fight. Along with unseen danger Aaron comes up against differing agendas. The Israelis want to neutralise Schramm. The Americans want to recruit him as an asset: “Keep tabs on Perón. Be one of his buddies in exile.” Aaron just wants him to stand trial. It doesn’t help that he has fallen for Schramm’s seductive daughter Hanna and is unable to tell where her true loyalties lie.

The Accomplice is a leaner offering than usual from Kanon. Its plot is streamlined with few wrong turns, hidden layers or surprise twists. Also, it doesn’t entirely explore new territory: Philip Kerr’s wise-cracking, Nazi-hating detective Bernie Gunther rubbed shoulders and crossed swords with Eichmann and Mengele in Argentina in A Quiet Flame (2008).

And yet there is still a great deal to enjoy. Kanon keeps his reader hooked and tearing through the pages. There are well-executed action scenes (a shoot-out in a cemetery, a moonlit flit by motorboat) and equally compelling verbal bouts. Along the way, Kanon excels with searching examinations of moral concerns – complicity, guilt, retribution – without ever allowing the pace to flag. The result is that rare thing: an espionage novel which quickens the pulse while providing food for thought.