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Book Review

In German POW Camp, Captive Turns Detective

HART'S WAR; by John Katzenbach; Ballantine $24.95, 496 pages

April 13, 1999|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Before "Hogan's Heroes" turned it into a joke, the experience of Allied airmen in German POW camps had been one of our most entertaining World War II stories. These men, mostly officers, were treated more or less correctly by their captors, even while, in other camps, Jews were exterminated and Russian POWs were worked to death. American and British escapees weren't shot if they were caught, merely returned behind the wire. There was latitude for sports, theatricals and the battle of wits described in books and films such as "Von Ryan's Express" and "The Great Escape," in which tunnelers with forged papers and ersatz civilian clothing tried to elude German "ferrets" with probes and dogs.

John Katzenbach's father was one of those prisoners. From him, Katzenbach ("In the Heat of the Summer," "Just Cause") absorbed the physical and psychological details of camp life that give his seventh novel its moments of authenticity. The parts that seem contrived--the murder mystery he sets in the fictional Stalag Luft 13 in Bavaria in April 1944, the courtroom histrionics, the B-movie dialogue, the happy and sinister coincidences, the genuflections at the altar of High Concept--must be the author's own.

Katzenbach's hero is Lt. Tommy Hart, a Vermont native who interrupted his law studies at Harvard to join the U.S. Army Air Corps as a navigator. Entrusted to show his bomber "the way home" after each mission, he instead spotted an enemy convoy off the coast of Italy in 1942, triggering a battle in which the B-25 was shot down and the crew members were killed--except him. Guilt, as well as the claustrophobia that keeps him out of tunnels, has made Hart a passive prisoner. He reads law books and waits for the war to end.

Two events change all this. Capt. Vincent "Trader Vic" Bedford, a former Mississippi used-car salesman, now a camp wheeler-dealer, like the antihero of James Clavell's "King Rat," is found dead in a latrine, his throat slashed. Suspicion immediately lands on Lt. Lincoln Scott, a Tuskegee airman who has quarreled with the racist Bedford. A court-martial is convened, with the cooperation of the Germans (who seem strangely interested in the case). Hart is assigned to be Scott's defense attorney.

Scott is a paragon--a PhD, a Golden Gloves boxing champion, a fighter ace--but his status as the camp's only African American makes him prickly, and he has no friends. Hart, who has seen Bedford bait Scott, has every reason to consider him guilty of murder. It's one of the book's contrivances that so many things happen so fast to change Hart's mind. Two British inmates, experienced lawyers, give him advice. An Irish artist draws the crime scene. An ambitious medic, without being ordered to do so, autopsies the body. Even the camp's Gestapo investigator--scar-faced, one-armed Capt. Heinrich Visser--hints that the prosecution's case doesn't add up.

If Scott is being railroaded, then Hart is a patsy. His resentment at being handed this role spurs him to probe harder. Simple racism seems insufficient to explain the elaborate deceptions he uncovers. Why are the Americans lying to him, and why are the Germans, now and then, telling the truth? The answers--to no reader's surprise--lie at the end of a long, dark tunnel through which Hart must crawl, despite his fears.

Katzenbach has a sophisticated sense of the moral dilemmas posed by war and the complexities of individuals' responses to them. Even Bedford has an admirable side, and Scott, for all his virtues, helps bring trouble on himself. For brief intervals, we can breathe the atmosphere of those camps, a 55-year-old distillation of cold, hunger, paranoia and homesickness. But then, inevitably, Katzenbach breaks the spell--has a character, for example, babble plot-serving information at implausible length, in words that seem scripted, not spoken. The true Stalag Luft experience, perhaps, can no longer be recovered, overlain as it is by so much time and so many fictional adaptations--Steve McQueen jumping motorcycles over fences, Col. Klink and Sgt. Schultz, and now this.

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