Most of Joseph Kanon’s critically acclaimed thrillers are set in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Though the time frame of “The Accomplice,” his ninth novel, is a bit farther along — set over the course of several weeks in 1962 — the horrors of the Nazi conquest are all too fresh here. The book centers on two kinds of the war survivors: Jewish death camp inmates and their families; and the camp overseers and deranged medical “researchers” who escaped to South America after the collapse of the Third Reich. Kanon’s engaging but uneven novel imagines what might happen if members of these two groups collided.
The plot takes flight when Aaron Wiley, a CIA analyst — family name originally Weiss — travels from Washington to Hamburg to visit his Uncle Max, a renowned Nazi hunter who competes with Simon Wiesenthal in tracking down the war criminals responsible for the Holocaust. While uncle and nephew are strolling by the Hamburg waterfront, Weiss is convinced he has spotted Otto Schramm, a Josef Mengele-style ogre who spared him but murdered his young son at Auschwitz. Schramm had been declared dead in a South American car crash years earlier, but an excited Weiss persuades Wiley that the monster is alive and Wiley must bring him to justice. Soon, the chase is on.
Schramm, alive indeed, and briefly (and implausibly) in Germany for the funeral of the mentally ill wife he abandoned after the war, is soon back in Argentina. Taking a leave from the CIA — which is preoccupied with the Soviets and interested in Nazis only insofar as it might recruit them in the anti-communist cause — Wiley follows Schramm to Buenos Aires. An obvious route to Schramm, who has gone into hiding, is Otto’s daughter Hanna, a high-society divorcée. Does she know her father is alive? Does she know where he is? Is she, despite her disgust with the kindly man who raised her, an accomplice in her monstrous father’s flight?
Guess how long it takes for Hanna and Wiley to end up in bed together? It’s a well-worn pop-novel trope — he’s using her to pry info out of her, she’s using the affair to find out who the secretive Wiley really is and how dangerous he might be — and in Kanon’s hands it works well. The sex scenes are quite racy, the duplicity adding to the charge. “People don’t lie in bed,” Hanna says on more than one occasion, lying through her teeth as she says it.
The sexy Aaron-Hanna cat-and-mouse game is the best thing in the novel. Also convincing are the ongoing geopolitical games. A Mossad agent assists Wiley up to a point, but the Israeli abduction of Adolf Eichmann a few years earlier was a big scandal in Latin America and now the Mossad is skittish. The CIA has its own plans for Schramm if he’s caught, and those plans have nothing to do with justice for the 6 million murdered Jews.
Unfortunately, the novel grows wobbly in the last quarter or so, with cheesy car chases — do I hear the skritchy-scratch of a movie contract being signed? — and clumsy fisticuffs and gunfights that were uninteresting when they were staged in Monogram Pictures B-westerns in 1946. These scenes are unworthy of the moral and historical matters Kanon is grappling with. Luckily, in the final scene it’s the Aaron-Hanna relationship that rises to the narrative surface once again. This is believable and moving, less like “Law of the Panhandle” and more reminiscent of “Casablanca” — and that’s fitting.