Sunday, March 1, 2015
The Odessa File
I enjoyed Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal so much that I looked forward to reading The ODESSA File. Plus, that was about a reporter hunting down a Nazi, and I’m a World War II buff. How could such a story go wrong?
In six words: the hero and the hit man.
But I’ll start with the good parts. The story begins when Peter Miller, a reporter who writes about pop bands and juicy scandals, discovers that an old Jewish man, a Holocaust survivor, committed suicide. One of the things the old man left behind is a detailed diary of his time in the concentration camp Riga, and Miller reads this.
Horrifying though the man’s experiences were—at the hands of the camp commandant, Eduard Roschmann, the Butcher of Riga—they aren’t why Miller decides to hunt down Roschmann. That’s personal, and it’s a great twist. I liked how it leaves Roschmann and his Nazi colleagues confused as to why they’re being tracked down by a young German with a war hero for a father. Mossad agents they’d expect, but not this.
Miller’s investigations draw the attention of Odessa, a secret organization of Nazis which works to get people like Roschmann to safety, and one way they do this is with forged passports. The forger maintains a file of all the people to whom he’s issued fake documents, and this file is his way of making sure Odessa never feels he’s outlived his usefulness. To safeguard him, Odessa sends a hit man to deal with Miller.
But they aren’t the only people who have noticed Miller. Another secret organization—of concentration camp survivors turned Nazi hunters—gets Miller to safety and tells him how to get into Odessa. After an intensive crash course, Miller can pass himself off as an officer who once murdered people in Flossenburg. He goes to one of the higher-ups in the Odessa and asks for help getting a new identity.
So far, so good. The tension is ever-present, the stakes are high, and Forsyth’s research is detailed. Then it all unraveled.
The higher-up sends Miller to stay with another Nazi, Franz Bayer, who’ll arrange for the forger to supply a fake passport. Claiming he had to go on the run for fear of being discovered, Miller has no money other than the handout the Odessa man gives him for the train fare to Bayer’s house. But because Miller doesn’t want to take public transportation, he drives there in his Jaguar.
I repeat : he drives there in his Jaguar. Which the Odessa know all about, because they’ve done their own investigating.
Granted, he doesn’t park it in Bayer’s driveway, but he still gets spotted by Frau Bayer (who doesn’t seem to wonder at this poor broke man driving a Jaguar, but then again, the few women in the story are not characterized by their powers of deduction). The Odessa higher-up immediately alerts the hit man.
Here’s where Miller now gets saved twice by dumb luck (or authorial fiat, since as the hero, he can’t die). The hit man prepares a bomb that he wires under the hood of the Jaguar, and he also waits to sniper-shoot Miller. Instead, he accidentally kills Bayer, and the bomb destroys the Jaguar—when Roschmann’s bodyguard has taken the car and is the only person inside.
At this point, I expected the Odessa people to shoot the hit man before he could bring down their entire organization.
Miller’s aura of immortality preserves him to the end, and the hit man is put out of his misery. I thought wistfully of how competent the Jackal was, and went to re-read that book instead.