Australian mystery writer Marshall Browne's first historical suspense novel is a perfect example of how a book can be both good for you and incredibly entertaining. "The Eye of the Abyss" is literate, redemptive and historically insightful - not merely accurate. It is also as suspenseful as anything you'll read this year.
Browne, who is respected for his intelligent series about a one-legged Italian police detective in the present day, sets his new book in Nazi Germany with a hero who is a one-eyed German banker.
In "The Eye of the Abyss," Browne deftly avoids the usual traps of the genres he is bridging. Most books set in totalitarian regimes focus on some world-changing plot. Here, what is at stake is not the fate of the world but of a few people and of our character's soul.
Even better, unlike most novels in which high finance plays a role, you don't have to be an accountant to love it.
Franz Schmidt lost his eye in a scuffle on the street defending a Jew from brownshirt thugs. As chief auditor at Bankhaus Wertheim and Co., Schmidt is important enough that he not only survives the encounter, he is issued an official apology.
As it happens, the Nazi Party has plans for Wertheim Bank, and Schmidt is central to them. As the regime tightens its hold on every aspect of German life, Nazi officials are moving to better their financial position, both nationally and personally.
While it is apparent to Schmidt that old man Wertheim has reluctantly taken on the Nazis as a new client, the son and heir does everything he can to ingratiate himself with Dietrich, the smart and slimy representative the SS has installed in the bank.
Schmidt plays along with the petty corruption for a while, though he turns down an offer to share in it. He's idealistic but no fool. He has a wife and a child to think of.
But when Dietrich begins his political moves by purging the elder Wertheim's half-Jewish secretary - the smart, lovely and outspoken Frau Dressler - Schmidt and a small circle of bank employees decide they must take some action.
That's easier said than done, even though Dressler's father is a prominent police detective. The Nazis' power has taken hold more firmly of every aspect of German life than most people realize until they make some move to resist.
Browne effectively relates the terror of living in a totalitarian state. Schmidt vainly tries to protect his family from Nazi attention by moving them to the in-laws' house in the countryside and even has his wife file for divorce.
At the same time Browne treats resistance to tyranny as a moral imperative, he recognizes he must protect those for whom he has personal responsibility. This is a conflict that lesser thrillers generally gloss over by making the hero a single man pursuing love and justice at the same time.
Adding to the suspense level is the certain knowledge that not all of the vividly drawn characters we have come to know and care about are going to survive this clash with evil.
"The Eye of the Abyss" is more Alan Furst than Jack Higgins. It is very reminiscent of Philip Kerr's great first few novels that featured a private detective in pre-World War II Berlin.
My only complaint with this book is its title. I can't count the times that the Nietzsche quote that looking into the abyss means the abyss also looks into you has been used in thrillers about heroes who hunt everything from serial killers to terrorists. While true enough, this overused bromide needs to be retired or at least given a long vacation.
Everything after the title page, however, is superb. Let's hope Browne will give us more of Franz Schmidt and his unique perspective of history in future novels.