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His first objective: write a page-turner

A little-known Nazi spy mission during the Battle of the Bulge inspires 'Twin Peaks' co-creator Mark Frost to emulate the World War II thrillers of yore.

May 22, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

IF the point of a thriller is, after all, "to thrill," how much other stuff can you fit in? Especially when the other stuff -- character, theme, setting, ambiguity -- is really what novels are about, or at least what they can do better than the movies.

If you're Mark Frost, former "Hill Street Blues" writer and "Twin Peaks" co-creator, you keep your plot moving, and you keep everything else lean and mean. Characters explain themselves pretty quickly. Descriptions are swift and efficient.

That doesn't mean, though, that bringing it all together is simple.

"I see my responsibility as to give people something they want to keep turning the pages of," the scholarly looking Frost said recently at a postwar coffee shop. "And giving people something to chew on, looking at some aspect of human nature that hadn't occurred to them recently."

His new book, "The Second Objective," tells the story of World War II's Operation Griffin, only declassified a decade ago and still not widely known, in which a small number of German soldiers sneaked behind enemy lines impersonating American GIs. Their goal, as they dressed in U.S. Army uniforms and cursed and joked in Bronx-inspired English, was first to sow confusion among the Yanks and then to execute a "second objective" meant to bring the Allies to their knees. The Germans prepared their men by bringing them to camps full of American POWs to show them, as Frost explained, "the way POWs slouched, or chewed gum, or unwrapped the cellophane on their cigarette. To fundamentally alter their behavior and their being." They even watched American movie musicals.

More than half a century past the end of the war, and decades after "Hogan's Heroes" and "Springtime for Hitler," Nazis don't seem as scary as they used to. In pop culture, there's often something campy about stern Prussians in seemingly homoerotic leathers. Novelists don't return to them as the embodiment of evil the way they used to.

That makes "The Second Objective," according to Hyperion President Robert Miller, "a good old-fashioned page-turner." The book reminds him of World War II thrillers like Alistair MacLean's "The Guns of Navarone" and Ken Follett's "Eye of the Needle."

"It's not a postmodern thriller, or post-Cold War," Miller said. "It's not subtle, or about the writing, or experimental. It's just really smart and really satisfying in a way that reminds me of the great thrillers of yesteryear. You have a real hero and real villain, a high-concept premise, and that pacing, that atmosphere."

Frost, 51, grew up mostly in New York and Los Angeles, the son of a stage actor who'd served with the Navy in the North Atlantic. He recalls being surrounded by the lore of World War II both at home and in the popular culture.

"What led me to the story," he said, "was my father's generation's formative experience. It cast a gigantic shadow ... the legend of that generation having confronted this great evil."

Movies like "The Great Escape" and "The Longest Day," he recalled, "were absolutely imprinting experiences." But while the Nazis became the symbol of absolute evil, the Germans themselves, he said, were "hard to characterize as 'the Other,' as you could with the Japanese."

Historians, Frost said, are increasingly seeing the period of both world wars as one long "family squabble" between Europeans. "Germany and England obvious had tremendous ties, cousins all the way up to the monarchy."

Frost read about Operation Griffin in a book by British military historian John Keegan. "So that led me to examining issues of identity: What constitutes good or evil in that context? What makes you an American or a German or an Englishman, and what happens when those lines get blurred?"

Writing the book after 9/11 and during the Iraq war, he stuck close to the historical record, but was also interested in the origins of terrorism.

For his main characters, he tried to give these ideas flesh: One is a charming, sadistic Nazi named Von Leinsdorf; the other is a confused Brooklyn-bred soldier of divided loyalties named Bernie. And before long, a hard-bitten American MP named Grannit picks up their trail, and the book becomes what Frost calls "a triangle."

Another character, the charismatic SS officer Otto Skorzeny, who masterminded Operation Griffin and freed Mussolini in '43, lurks in the background in the novel. Frost calls him "kind of the godfather of modern terrorism."

"This is the man who would go on to form ODESSA after the war," Frost said of the group thought to have funneled SS men to Spain and South America. "And we're all kind of living with the consequences of what happened when these guys decided they could blur the lines."

'You can't just live in the present'

The book sprang from hundreds of pages of declassified documents -- Griffin was only declassified in 1995, it's thought, because of a postwar alliance between American intelligence and Skorzeny. Frost and an assistant also read through dozens of books on the Battle of the Bulge.

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