Sunday, July 24, 2011

Murder in the Warsaw Ghetto: Richard Zimler, THE WARSAW ANAGRAMS

When I first read the Nancy Drew books -- and then the James Bond books -- and all the various mysteries, thrillers, and espionage that delighted me in the first half of my life, I wished I could be taking those adventures, solving those puzzles, defying evil and being decisive, clever, and (let's hope) wise.

But I always pictured doing those things with the advantages of youth, health, and strength.

Now Richard Zimler's THE WARSAW ANAGRAMS dares us to consider what it would be like to chase down evil when our legs tremble, our minds are fragile, our families vanished. In Erik Cohen, an elderly psychiatrist, Zimler presents the most difficult challenges of life trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940: being human.

Erik Cohen has enough foresight to move himself into the noted Jewish district before the Nazis force his neighbors to do the same, in autumn 1940. So he has some of his books, and a sense of control of his life -- which is quickly crushed as he takes up residence in tight quarters with his niece Steffa and Stefa's nine-year-old son Adam. And  when Adam goes missing, then is revealed as brutally murdered and mutilated, Cohen's barely balanced emotions and living space undergo perilous changes.

What Zimler portrays brilliantly is how Cohen forms alliances with other elderly (and not so elderly) Ghetto residents, and takes on himself the challenge of discovering the cause of little Adam's terrible death. And in choosing toinvestigate, he'll run counter to the wishes of a representative of the Ghetto's Jewish Council:
'Spreading news of what's happened could cause panic. And since this is an isolated case, it's best if we just . . . well, I think you know what I mean.'

'No, actually I don't,' I told him.

'A little discretion will go a long way in keeping things under control,' he observed.

When he shook my hand to take his leave, I snarled, 'Do you really believe that keeping things under control is of any importance to me now?'
Unlike any other "World War II" novel or thriller, THE WARSAW ANAGRAMS weaves the dark details of captivity  into Cohen's determined investigation, with all the daily risks of violence and horror that we shudder to remember -- and that fuel our sympathy for this frail old man in his often haunted journey of discovery.

Richard Zimler's eight novels have been widely translated, and The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon brought him critical acclaim and award nominations. THE WARSAW ANAGRAMS will surely do the same. Many thanks to The Overlook Press for embracing a deep and daring work of suspense and survival.

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