The author of Just Cause and State of Mind, John Katzenbach is back with a new tale to tell, and it's a doozy. Set amidst the deprivation and despair of a World War II prisoner-of-war camp, Hart's War relates Second Lieutenant Tommy Hart's quest to secure justice for an African-American Tuskegee airman accused of the murder of another prisoner and countryman.
Tommy Hart is one of nearly ten thousand Allied kriegies ("war-captured") in Bavaria's fiercely guarded Stalag Luft Thirteen. The sole survivor of his crew after their B-25 was shot out of the sky, Tommy tries to forget the nightmarish guilt that plagues him in his dreams by throwing himself into studying the law and forging fast friendships with an accomplished English barrister and a Canadian policeman, both of whom are being held in the other half of the same camp. Tommy's, indeed the entire camp's routine of staving off hunger, finding small comforts and plotting escape is interrupted by the arrival of a black airman named Lincoln Scott. The aloof Lieutenant Scott quickly becomes the target of the contempt of his "fellow" American prisoners. His chief tormentor is Vincent Bedford, "Trader Vic," a decorated bomber captain from Mississippi and the man in camp who can get things, whether it be contraband or information. Everyone can see that hatred seethes between the two men.
When Bedford is found brutally but efficiently murdered, all the evidence, both circumstantial and hard, points straight at Scott. The Germans agree to allow the American prisoners to hold a trial, and Tommy is ordered to defend Lincoln Scott, who continues to insist on his innocence. But Tommy senses a railroad in progress; he feels he's supposed to do no more than make a show of defending Scott, that his superiors presume an open-and-shut case. The more Tommy comes to know Lincoln Scott, and the more he discovers about details of the case, the more convinced he is that secret motives are behind this rush to judgment. Tommy Hart will discover that those you name enemy can in truth be your ally -- and vice versa.
Katzenbach's portrays the resignation and boredom of a WWII POW camp convincingly, probably to more effect than he portrays its horrors, but the twin issues of race relations and justice make up the novel's core. The inscrutable and duplicit natures of key characters in Hart's War force the reader to reconsider the meaning of "acceptable losses." The racial climate of the 40s that puts Scott in this deadly predicament is not so much worse than today's; the US still has a long way to go. Repetition of a few words (oddly, evil) the length of the story may grate on some readers, but overall Hart's War is what every suspense tale must be to succeed: a page-turner. [Hart's War has been sold to MGM for development as a major motion picture. It should translate to film well.]