The One Man by Andrew Gross
“It begins with two men….they were running.” The old man looks out, but this time, his eyes are alive with memory. “Running for their lives,” He says as the prologue ends and Gross’ tale commences. In the short few pages of the prologue / opening, I found myself brewing coffee for I saw the beginnings of a very long and dark night ahead of me. I tossed the bookmark in the bin, for as I stirred my coffee I knew that I would not be requiring it.
I am reminded of a speech that legendary British book publisher Christopher MacLehose delivered in January 2008 at the Foreign Press Association’s headquarters in London’s West End. His new imprint, MacLehose Press, had launched—in conjunction with Quercus Publishing—a daring new novel titled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by a Swedish writer, Stieg Larsson, who’d died four years earlier.
He informed us that the job of the publisher is to bring books to the public that they didn’t want; books that they didn’t anticipate; and books that would nonetheless make an impression and challenge their way of thinking. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one such work, he observed.
I’ve been reeling recently after reading a highly literate suspense yarn, one that is quite distinct from earlier efforts by this same best-selling author. I’m talking about American writer Andrew Gross’s The One Man, a heavily researched World War II-era historical techno-thriller that mixes in the themes of family and ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations. This is a truly remarkable tale, one that reminds me of novels by Alistair MacLean and other novels of my youth. It made me recall a weekend when I was a teenager and devoured Fredrick Forsyth’s The Odessa File and The Day of the Jackal, reading them back-to-back, hypnotized by Forsyth’s storytelling prowess.
Gross’s story has high concept etched in the narrative, right from the outset. He uses the conventions of the genre, keeping away from the line that takes convention toward cliché. The opening has a terse memo dated 1943 from American nuclear physicists of the Manhattan Project to Robert Oppenheimer, warning about the Nazi regime in Germany getting close to creating a nuclear device, worrying the Allies who were also working on such a device and fearful that the enemy would get there first. Then Gross has the much maligned (but in many cases necessary) prologue that acts like a pivot point to launch the tale. An unnamed elderly man, a widower, is confronted by a box of artifacts by his daughter, who uncovered these items while doing a clear-out. When quizzed about the contents, the elderly man, whose mental faculties are fading with age, asks of his daughter, “You really want to know?” When she replies, “I do,” and corrects herself, “We all do,” the old man sits back for he has a story to tell.
It’s 1943; we have the Allies planning Operation Overlord—the D-Day landings—as well as getting their hands on a functioning nuclear device. In order to do so, they need the help of a German Jewish professor of physics, Alfred Mendl, who has the key to separate the two main isotopes of uranium—namely uranium-235 and uranium-238—by a process of gaseous diffusion. For only one of the isotopes, U-235, will result in a fission reaction, and the process of separating U-235 from the heavier U-238, is what physical chemists term uranium enrichment. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime precursor to what we today know as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has been trying to get Professor Mendl, his wife, Marte, and daughter, Lucy, out of Germany to resettle them in America, and assist the Manhattan Project team in enriching sufficient fissile U-235 to create the weapon that will end the war.
The Mendl family has successfully managed to get into Nazi-occupied France on forged documents from an agent in the Paraguayan embassy under the aegis of the OSS’s Operation Catfish. When, at the eleventh hour in France, the Mendls’ documents are detected as forgeries by the Nazis and their French collaborators, the family is shipped by cattle truck to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
Enter Nathan Blum, a young Polish athlete of Jewish heritage who escaped from the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto and is now working for the OSS in America. He is sent back to Poland, where he is smuggled into Auschwitz on a suicide mission in conjunction with members of the Polish Resistance. Blum has just three days to locate Mendl and his family and spirit them out of the concentration camp to rendezvous with a plane in a forest clearing near Auschwitz.
Though as impossible as missions go, Blum’s ratchets up a couple of gears when Col. Martin Franke of the Abwehr (Nazi intelligence) intercepts what he believes is a coded broadcast. For Franke, this could be redemption if his instincts are correct, for he has been disgraced and relegated to a backwater in Poland for a past indiscretion. For Blum, success in his suicide mission also holds redemption for he lost his parents and beloved sister to the Nazi horror in the Warsaw ghetto.
There are several well-delineated sub-characters that add much interest to the proceedings, including the deputy camp commandant, his wife, Greta, the chess savant Leo, and many others. One criticism that is often leveled at thriller novelists is the “cardboard quality” used in crafting the characters. I can assure you all the characters are organic, breathing, and multifaceted, each battling inner demons in a world that resembles hell on Earth. However, compassion, knowingness, and a love for humanity are also striated throughout the work. There is even understanding for some of those wearing the black boots and swastika: why they used these items to mask their own fears, inadequacies, and blame, and why some enjoyed inflicting pain.
Hidden beneath the action of The One Man are some poignant love stories and the consequences of what war and hate can do to families. Like its precursor, of sorts, the medieval historical thriller The Jester, it thrills as well as informs readers, making us think, ponder, and reflect upon our lives. In the chaos of today’s world, where our weapons can destroy everything, we need frequent reminders of the shamefulness of our past, and how one man can make a difference.
To say any more will spoil the invigorating and thought-provoking thrills of Nathan Blum’s suicide mission, bar one. When I reached the dénouement, I was stunned at a little twist— one that made me put the book down and applaud until my hands stung and were as red as the LED digits on my alarm clock. It was 4:00 a.m. and I had read Gross’s novel through the night.