Review: The German by Lee Thomas

From the Lambda Literary Award and Bram Stoker Award-winning author Lee Thomas come a new thrilling novel. 1944 – Barnard, Texas. At the height of World War II, a killer preys on the young men of a quiet Texas town. The murders are calculated, vicious, and they are just beginning. Sheriff Tom Rabbit and his men are baffled and the community he serves is terrified of the monster lurking their streets. The only clues the killer leaves behind are painted snuffboxes containing notes written in German. As the panic builds all eyes turn toward a quiet man with secrets of his own. Ernst Lang fled Germany in 1934. Once a brute, a soldier, a leader of the Nazi party, he has renounced aggression and embraces a peaceful obscurity. But Lang is haunted by an impossible past. He remembers his own execution and the extremes of sex and violence that led to it. He remembers the men he led into battle, the men he seduced, and the men who betrayed him. But are these the memories of a man given a second life, or the delusions of a lunatic?

Review by Erastes

It took me a good while to read this book, since I started it in July 2011 and finished it in December! In my defence I wasn’t reading it all the time, I don’t read that slowly, honest. It was that I was expecting it to all go a lot darker than it did (although it does go to some dark places) and I’m happy that my anticipation didn’t match what actually happened. Although, as I say, it’s not full of fluffy rabbits.

Ok, so basically it’s set in 1944 in a smallish Texan town and is told in three different POVs:

Tom Rabbit: the sherrif. 3rd person past tense.

The German: first person diary entry

Tim Randall: first person past tense.

Now, don’t let this put you off, as it’s absolutely the best way to tell this convoluted and highly interesting story. Like many places in America, the small town has a German community and suddenly young men are dying in horribly mutilated ways and evidence found on the bodies points to the fact that it’s a German murderer. Thus begins an exquisite tale of paranoia, prejudice and a study of how a community can tear itself apart under all sorts of justification.

The German of the title is Ernst, who is clearly a troubled, and yet a good man at heart. He writes in his journal of his past–memories of serving in an army, commanding man, many many men, and a betrayal, a court martial and–and here’s where it’s delightfully opaque–an execution which he seems to have survived, despite the terrible bullet scars on his body. He lives across the street from Tim Randall, an ordinary young man growing up in a small town and with his father overseas serving in the war, at daily threat from “the Krauts”.

Tim’s interaction with Ernst is light. Tim is curious about his neighbour but he doesn’t bother him, although when they do meet up Ernst tries to educate the boy about prejudice and hate. Sadly, although at first Tim appears to see the sense in this, his father is declared “missing in action” and Tim’s grief and fear is channelled in the only way it could be at this time and place–directly towards Ernst.

I loved the feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia here. The way Ernst is pretty much trammelled and keeps to himself for very clear reasons. He frequents a bar from time to time but mostly stays indoors or sits on the porch or swims in the lake. He does have male company occasionally although for most of the book this is with men who are disgusted with their own urges–which puts Ernst off from wanting to see them again.

The interaction between the sheriff and Ernst was masterful. Ernst so clearly in control and almost a little bored with the interrogation–he’s been interrogated before and by masters of the art after all. His frankness to the sheriff about his sexuality was a brilliant stroke–and the effect it had on the countrified and rather naive sheriff was an interesting study.

It’s not a pretty story in any aspect, nor is it meant to be, nor should it be, so be warned that the violence is graphic and literal and shocking. This is entirely right because it is shocking, what happens and who it happens to and why. It’s a terrible but sadly true indictment of human behaviour, beautifully observed and told with true skill.

If I have one quibble, it was the epilogue–the character it portrays didn’t strike me as having learned the lessons that he said he learned and it didn’t really ring true from what we’d seen on the pages previously. However that’s just a small quibble and won’t affect the score because the remainder of the epilogue was note perfect.

Just a note on the cover and the design. I’ve noticed with Lethe Press before that they take real pains over the design of their books. Not merely the covers–this one is perfect–but the font, and the design of the headers inside. It probably won’t show on e-readers, but the headings in this book are just amazingly good, and add another dimension to the book, and I wouldn’t have thought that was possible. So well done, Lethe Press.

Yes, there is — perhaps — an element of the paranormal here, but as it is completely subjective, I’m not hesitating to review it on the site and to recommend it to anyone.

Author’s website

Amazon UK      Amazon USA (available in print and ebook)

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