book review by Patrick H. Moore
David W. Thayer’s new crime thriller, Black Forest, available in e-version at Amazon.com, may keep you up all night reading breathlessly, fighting off the confounding desire to look ahead to see what happens next. Don’t. Try to be patient. If you do, you will be richly rewarded. Black Forest will also make you think. Thayer’s tightly constructed plot is endlessly intriguing and I couldn’t help wondering how he was going pull the pieces together. Somehow, he manages.
The novel’s setting is New York City, circa 1964. Protagonist Arthur Murray is an insurance investigator who also invests in real estate with his childhood friend, On-The-Go Teddy. Arthur has a modest Manhattan office and a pretty secretary named Connie whom he quietly yearns for. Unfortunately, Connie is married to Leo Feller, NYPD, SIU (Special Investigations Unit), a crooked cop with a penchant for pornography. Arthur served in Germany during World War II where he was captured by S.S. troops. He watched as his fellows soldiers were executed with ruthless precision by their SS tormentors. Arthur escaped but he did not forget. After the Third Reich crumbled, he served in the OSS, CIA’s predecessor for several years hunting down Nazis.
After leaving the OSS, Arthur returned home to NYC. Although Thayer doesn’t choose to provide that many details, the reader senses that Arthur has been damaged by his war experience. He’s competent and eminently decent but he ‘s wary of personal entanglements and intimate relationships.
David W. Thayer’s prose is lean, taut and muscular, with enough noir poetry to satisfy any discerning crime fiction fan. For example:
Earlier this evening, before my father’s phone call. I watched a man do one-arm pushups on his stoop. Even before I knew how the rest of the evening would go, I took this as a bad omen. Nothing good begins with one-arm pushups…
I keep a gun under the front seat of my car, a souvenir from my Army days. It’s a monster, a .45 caliber Browning. The last time I cleaned it was during the Kennedy-Nixon debate…
Still clutching the gun, I cut cross-town toward the tunnel. The city is in full cry with the supper clubs open, the restaurants packed, the dives in the Village humming with music. I used to tend bar in one of those dives, a jazz club. Manhattan is a blur even when you’re standing still… I heft the Browning, aiming it west toward the vast expanse of the continental United States, or CONUS, as we called it in the OSS…
As the story begins, someone or a group of someones are leaning on Edgar, Arthur’s 71 year old father, to pay off an unexplained debt. Arthur meets a middleman named Calvin Foyles in the parking lot next to the World’s Fair in faraway Flushing to hand over the grand. Abigail Drew, a Turtle Bay madam who riveted of all NYC around the time of the Kennedy assassination, gets out of Foyles’ car and get into Arthur’s. Black Forest is off and running:
Abigail steps forward and the light pooling around her is flattering emphasizing her long legs. Even in a man’s raincoat she has that essence of woman about her, graceful, knowing, confident.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll take that lift,” she says.
“Manhattan. I’m breaking out in hives this side of the river.”
Arthur recognizes Abigail. Before dropping her off in Manhattan, he stops at a pay phone on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens to phone his father to report mission accomplished. The next thing he knows, a rusted Dodge has pulled up next to them and a thick-set man in a brown coat is shooting at them:
I tackle Abigail after hearing the flat crack of the pistol. A round sparks off the sidewalk as Abigail struggles in my grasp. She’s scared, her body fighting me as we roll across a patch of city grass…
In noir land, as likely as not, lovers must be shot at before they are allowed to consummate their passion and Arthur and Abigail do eventually become lovers. They do not, however, fall in love. That’s impossible because Abigail is not only a madam. She’s also an Israeli Nazi hunter on the trail of Otto Pinzler, a notorious Nazi war criminal.
Black Forest is populated with dozens of characters. Most of them live in noir land.
- Edgar Murray is Arthur’s father. He has survived the untimely loss of two children and runs a garage in Queens, gambles and invests in real estate. He and Arthur are distant but stubbornly loyal to one another.
- Leo and Connie Feller are husband and wife. Leo is NYPD, SIU. Connie is Arthur’s secretary whom he dotes on and desires. Leo is not a good man. He and Arthur despise one another.
- Charlie Ross is a full-fledged Nazi, a member of STASI, an East German cell of Nazi/Communists. Rational and calculating, Charlie is working to undermine the U.S. He is also into pornography.
- The Nazi scientists are employed in nuclear weapons development in Huntsville, Alabama. (It is a dark fact that after World War II ended, the U.S. and Soviet Union not only split up Germany. They also split up the German nuclear scientists.)
- Mike Nolan is CIA. He was Arthur’s boss in the OSS. Now, strangely, Nolan’s job is to protect the Huntsville Nazi scientists. Political expediency makes for peculiar bedfellows.
- The thick-set man who shot at Arthur and Abigail in Queens works for Charlie Ross as a hit man.
- Jay Washburn is a downtown Manhattan jazz musician who blackmails and murders people on the side. Jay is plotting to take control of Club 55, a jazz club near Little Italy. Meanwhile, Arthur’s real estate group is in the process of purchasing Club 55. The Huntsville Nazi scientists are transported to Club 55 every few months for recreation which consists of jazz, alcohol and hookers.
- On-The- Go Teddy manages the real estate consortium of which Arthur is a member. He means well but finds himself severely compromised as the plot unfolds.
Mike Nolan in curiously unaware that Otto Pinzler is a notorious Nazi killer and war criminal. Abigail Drew, however, is not. Her mission is to capture him and take him back to Israel to stand trial.
A major theme in Black Forest is that appearances are illusory and things and people are often not who they appear to be. David W. Thayer manages his sprawling cast of characters gracefully and weaves them seamlessly into his plot, a fact that is nothing short of astounding.
This novel is the epitome of a “page-turner.” The pace never slackens as Arthur, bemused by finding himself in the middle of this scenario, tries to — and ultimately succeeds — in largely unraveling the case.
If Black Forest has a defect, it is the fact that the novel could have benefited by more psychological complexity. More than anything, however, that reflects my personal taste. Any crime fiction reader who wants a fast-paced, spine-tingling “page turner” with a great plot and an intriguing cast of characters will be enthralled by Black Forest. It comes highly recommended by All Things Crime Blog.
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