Cook’s latest novel establishes a fragmented synchronicity between the events of 9/11 and an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. With a serpentine narrative circling around plots and counter-plots, terrorists and spies are tied to the rise of fascism while an equally brutal Marxist regime festers, with more villains and thugs and political heroes than one can ever imagine.
Beginning on the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks, what starts out as an interview with ninety-one-year-old Thomas Jefferson Danforth by young foreign affairs operative Paul Crane soon becomes an international espionage tale as the choking dust of the Towers’ collapse settles around them. Washington is positive that Danforth - a old-world
figure from a bygone age - might have something to add to the intelligence
community. Danforth is only too happy to offer up his advice, his calm responses flowing from “paranoid passion as much as policy.”
Cook constructs a clever house of cards around Crane’s first-person narrative, but at the heart of the story is Danforth in
1939 New York, a world of salubrious old-town bars and snowy nights where a man called Clayton enlists him for a secret mission called The Project. A world traveler and speaker of several languages, Danforth is considered a perfect for the job in this “monster-making age."
A sentimentalist with a Conradian sense of the revolutionary, Danforth finds himself drawn into deadly intrigue when he meets frenetic, mysterious Anna Klein. Never one to face the “blind play of circumstance,” Danforth commits himself to The Project with the caveat that he will provide a cover identity for Anna. As Danforth progresses further into the case, the ever-enigmatic Anna becomes an unexpected and welcome ally.
Throughout, Anna’s transformation is truly stunning. “Like religious martyrs who walk towards their execution sites,” Anna walks into her future as Hitler’s assassin, her fervor in stark counterpoint to the hesitant Danforth, who cannot help but become romantically fixated. In the guise of a disordered young woman in a Greenwich Village bar, an accomplished art dealer’s assistant, an assassin or spy, Anna’s true identity (and Danforth’s post-war search for her) forms the dramatic core of Cook’s dense novel.
In this world of German sympathizers, freedom fighters battle without reserve or limits, determined to bring down the Nazi regime. Most compelling is an appearance of the Fuehrer himself, his small round eyes reflecting the sufferings of his youth. Scenes of terrifying torture play out, “fear coming from the walls like odor”, and Danforth,
wrecked by the war, descends into Soviet Russia in search of his one true love.
Although espionage novels are not usually to my taste, Cook excels in creating a circular plot where evil co-exists with fanatical zeal. We follow Danforth from callow youth to shallow adventurist to tormented romantic obsessive and finally on to amateur assassin, a picture of this hate-filled man who might at last personify the very thing he seeks: vengeance.