February 21, 2014

Book Review: "The Tenth Witness," by Leonard Rosen

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The Tenth Witness, by Leonard Rosen
 
The Tenth Witness
by Leonard Rosen
The Permanent Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
"I begin, therefore, as I have for thirty years: with the body of a man floating face down in the slack water of Terschelling Island." Henri Poincare, the narrator, continues, "And the world is well rid of him." The body's identity and how Henri comes about to justify this homicide will propel The Tenth Witness forward. Beginning off the Dutch coast in late spring 1978, Henri Poincare and his fellow engineer Alec Chin are set to salvage the HMS Lutine. The Lutine sank off the coast in 1799, laden with tons of gold. But before Henri begins work on the salvaging operation, he decides to take a short vacation by hiking across the mud flats of the Wadden Sea. His guide is Liesel Kraus, an athletic beauty with a troubling past.

As Henri finds himself falling in love with Liesel, he decides to investigate the Kraus family. Liesel gives Henri a copy of a biography of Otto von Kraus, the patriarch of the family and mastermind behind Kraus Steel. The current head of Kraus Steel is Liesel's brother Anselm. What confounds Henri is how the Kraus family acquired (or preserved?) its wealth. According to the biography of Otto von Kraus, he was a member in good standing of the Nazi Party. He used slave labor, but was exonerated from prosecution of war crimes due to the positive testimonies of ten witnesses. This strikes a nerve with Henri, since his uncle was Jewish and he understands the evil perpetrated by the Nazi regime, even if the Kraus family wants to whitewash it.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of this, Henri attempts to meet the surviving witnesses. Except the witnesses he plans to meet end up dying in dubious circumstances.

The convenient deaths occur at the same time Anselm woos Henri into working as a consultant for Kraus Steel. He takes Henri to a ship-breaking yard in India. While Anselm sees the unsafe conditions as just another line on a budget ledger, the ship-breaking yard horrifies Henri. He also sees parallels between the ship-breaking yard and Nazi slave labor. (And a delightful example to bring up to opponents of raising the American minimum wage.) Anselm recruited Henri's talents because he wants Henri to come up with a process for salvaging computers and other electronic equipment. After a near fatal accident in the lab working on an electronics salvaging process, Henri has to face some tough choices. The trouble continues to mount as Anselm's recruitment techniques turn into strong arm tactics and the biography Liesel gave to Henri becomes less and less credible. Henri's torturous conflicts with the family business and his love for Liesel draw him deeper and deeper into corporate corruption and a race hatred he's finding everywhere, even within himself.

The Tenth Witness is a prequel to Leonard Rosen's critically acclaimed and Macavity Award-winning first novel, All Cry Chaos. Why did I give the novel a perfect 10? It is a combination of the excellent writing, compelling characters, and its tapestry of histories. It weaves together the history of the HMS Lutine, the Second World War and the Holocaust, and the Seventies. Histories reflect and refract off other histories, putting the novel in the category of Seventies Eurothrillers with Nazi villains (think Marathon Man and more tangentially, The Night Porter). In the Sixties and Seventies, the German population wanted to sweep the Nazi war crimes under the carpet and just get along with their lives. At least that's what the parents told their children who now asked that tricky question, "Grandpa, what did you do during the War?" It also brings to light the criminal atrocities done in the name of saving a nickel like ship-breaking by an indentured worker class and our current practice of recycling electronics in a less than healthful manner. But who cares about them? Buy that new iPhone that's a quarter inch thinner and forget where the last one went ... or what it is doing to the worker's eyes and lungs.

Leonard Rosen ties together all these disparate narrative strands in a book less than 300 pages long. The various histories and personalities melded together seamlessly, reminding me of the baroque complexity of Alan Moore's Watchmen. It is a stunning achievement.

Out of 10/10
 
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Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, February 21, 2014. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction |