Having been utterly gripped and impressed by Frederick Forsyth's novel The Day Of The Jackal, I resolved to move on to another one of his more celebrated works, The Odessa File, not really knowing what to expect. I had a brief outline of what the plot entailed, but was surprised at what I ultimately found within its pages.
The story revolves around a German investigative journalist, Peter Miller, and his attempts to track down a former SS officer suspected of war crimes, this search being prompted by the contents of the diary of a concentration camp survivor who had just committed suicide. Only towards the very end of the book do we fully learn that the young reporter had a deeply personal motivation to find the suspect in question....
The Odessa File repeats the formula of building dynamic and convincing fiction within a basic framework of some actual historical developments and events. This proves to be an inspired decision, as it imbues the novel with a ring of authenticity and plausibility.
As with The Day Of The Jackal, it is the investigative elements, and the game of cat-and-mouse played out between the central characters, which help to propel the tale forward. Forsyth expertly and convincingly constructs the tension, intrigue and menace, holding enough back to ensure that later twists have the true element of surprise.
One of the things which makes this novel so engrossing is the way in which space and time are afforded for some of the topics springing from the investigation to be examined. The sensitivity of the German nation to the events of World War 2 is put under the microscope, as are the inter-generational tensions and antagonism which ensued. The attention given to the soul-searching and feelings of guilt is greater than I had anticipated, given my prior knowledge.
As his probe develops, Miller is confronted by official recalcitrance, obstinacy and cynicism at several levels, and even those who share his zeal to see justice served urge circumspection. He remains undaunted by the numerous notes of caution, for reasons which become clearer later, and Forsyth expertly guides us through the stages at which the various layers of bureaucracy and resistance are peeled back, and the goal is neared.
Another shrewd stroke was to cast geopolitics into the mix, particularly the tensions between Israel and Egypt, and the role supposedly played by the Odessa organisation in assistance to the latter.
The pace quickens appreciably when Miller, sometimes unknowingly, crosses paths with the men of Odessa in the course of his work. The stakes gradually escalate, and the web of intrigue is spun more and more intricately. Miller's increasing diligence and commitment is matched by the desperation and unscrupulousness of Odessa and its associates. Even Miller, as the day of judgement draws near, employs some ethically questionable and dubious methods to attain his aims.
One can detect a major rise in Miller's trepidation and excitement as the gravity and depth of his involvement goes up. The point at which he accedes to a request to try to infiltrate Odessa is particularly chilling and sobering;a point of no return, in many respects.
A different dimension is provided by the decision by Israel and others to try to co-opt Miller for their own purposes in combating Odessa. Although initially one is tempted to view the reporter as being used and manipulated, it quickly becomes evident that he is nobody's puppet.
The twists in the plot are numerous and deftly managed, each apparent impasse in the search being followed by an inventive or novel deviation. The author is very adept at handling these scenarios convincingly and adroitly.
The conclusion to the story is gripping and suspenseful, as the fate of the protagonists is awaited, but we are not provided with the "expected" or "obvious" finale. The ending is somewhat inconclusive, with the former SS man escaping and Miller surviving. Odessa, however, sustained a grievous blow because of the exposure suffered, and Israel achieved many of its aims.
The Odessa File is another classic of its genre, and embodies the full meaning of the familiar term "unputdownable".
By the way, my thoughts on The Day Of The Jackal can be found via the link below:
The Day Of The Jackal