Reading matter: The Odessa File


Can you forgive the past? It’s 1963 and a young German reporter has been assigned the suicide of a holocaust survivor. The news story seems straightforward, this is a tragic insight into one man’s suffering. But a long hidden secret is discovered in the pages of the dead man’s diary. What follows is life-and-death hunt for a notorious former concentration camp-commander, a man responsible for the deaths of thousands, a man as yet unpunished.

Over Christmas I’ve been re-reading Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File, the story of an investigative journalist tracking down a prominent former Nazi in 1960s Germany. The real triumph of this novel, I think – apart from the fact that it’s an excellent thriller – is the strong sense of time and place. Forsyth’s tale puts us into a very specific period of history and gives us an evocative and very real “stage” for the action to be played out, as well as a fascinating look into post-war Germany.

The story revolves around Peter Miller, a journalist who stumbles into a world he – and by extension the reader – is unprepared for. His journey is our journey too and Forsyth neatly explores the contradictions and confusion of a country and its people struggling to come to terms with a terrible and at that time still very recent past in a much more nuanced way than I expected. Here be monsters – but not cartoon villains.

There are aspects I don’t care for: the girlfriend subplot feels tacked-on and a weak excuse for a few uninspired sex scenes, and the rockets subplot is exposition-heavy and, at times, a serious distraction from the main plot. Overall, though, this is a solid thriller and an entertaining read.


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