“Black Cross” by Greg Iles Review

Black Cross

Black Cross

Author:  Greg Iles

Published:  1995

This was another book I was loaned by a fellow reader I work with. I’ve only read a few war books in the last few years, but it’s a genre I tend to enjoy (one of my favorite books in particular is The Hunters by James Salter). The story is set in 1944, and the Germans are at war with the English and Russians. With an allied invasion seemingly imminent, Nazi scientists have put more focus on developing chemical weapons as a means to devastate the opposing forces. Because they are Nazis and this is during the holocaust, much of the chemical weapon testing is being done at concentration camps. After the allies become aware of the newest poison gases, they develop a plan to prevent the Nazis from using them. Two non-British subjects will sneak into the concentration camp producing the deadly gas, and complete a mission that wipes out everybody in the camp. The two men include an American pacifist chemist, and a German Jewish Israeli resistance fighter.

I enjoyed this book, but the further into it I got the more it reminded me of the 1996 film “The Rock.” In that film, a non-threat scientist and a total badass have to go rescue hostages from armed forces that possess deadly chemical gas. If you take that movie and put it in a Nazi German concentration camp setting, you’d got a pretty good idea of most of the plot beats in this book. You know the pacifist scientist will have to be contribute to the survival effort by the end of it, just like you have a pretty good idea of what outcome the insurance bombing run will have if their mission goes down to the wire. Likewise it’s not a spoiler to say that the two main characters, McConnell the scientist and Stern the muscle, will initially not like each other and come to a deep respect for one another.

While I enjoyed a lot of the main story, overall its predictability in character notes would have me giving this book a three overall. However, the book also has a separate subplot running through it from the perspective of a woman stuck in the concentration camp. When we first encounter Rachel, her husband is being shot and she and her two children under the age of 4 are stuck in a camp where children’s purpose is as test subjects for dangerous medical testing and women’s purpose seems to be as pawns for the Nazi soldiers to use as they see fit. I’ve found that since I’ve become a father a few years ago that stories involving children have a much stronger impact on me than they did before I had rugrats. Here the story of a woman doing anything possible to keep her two children safe in one of the deadliest situations in world history really got to me.

Also in the concentration camp are interesting figures like the Shoemaker and Ariel Weitz. The Shoemaker is one of the longest surviving prisoners at the camp, a man able to stay alive by blending in when needed, and fixing shoes for the soldiers on the side. Ariel Weitz is the Jewish prisoner willing to do anything the Nazis ask, even pulling the switch on the gas chambers and then prying gold teeth from the deceased, in exchange for more freedom throughout the camp. Iles does a great job of taking these two characters in surprising directions, making the stakes of Stern and McConnell’s mission feel much higher because of the stories within the camp.

There’s a saying that Nazis make the best movie villains, and here they are as evil as anything imaginable. The atrocities described in this book are such that there’s no person that could read them and sympathize with their actions and not be a monster his or her self. The main Nazi bad guys are a one eyed officer and a jealous sergeant who have a rivalry with each other for power within the camp. As the officer has an interest in Rachel, the sergeant uses her as his method for tormenting the officer. The top ranking official, a scientist named Brandt, is practically a ghost in the story just showing up as somebody that does terrible things to little children.

If you’re a reader that finds depictions of violent or deadly acts to women and children difficult to read, this is not the book for you. Although Iles doesn’t linger on any descriptions for too long, there are still dozens of scenes of despicable acts that occur or are remembered throughout the plot. The subject matter of the book seems to require it, and besides making me emotional a few times I thought if anything it added to the impact of the book. I was also loaned Iles other WWII book, which I’ll probably check out next, so that’s as good an indicator as any that I enjoyed this as 1200 pages in a row by any author is usually not my style.

4-star

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