Hart's War

John Katzenbach, Author
John Katzenbach, Author Ballantine Books $24.95 (490p) ISBN 978-0-345-42624-6
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Vivid and unpredictable characters and diabolically imagined suspense distinguish Katzenbach's (The Shadow Man) seventh novel. Set in the desperately bleak landscape of a German POW compound during the latter days of WWII, this is a thriller with more on its mind than entertainment, as Katzenbach tackles the theme of racial bias that breeds explosive consequences. Held captive since 1942, 2nd Lt. Tommy Hart--ex-Harvard Law student and navigator on an ill-fated B-25--is one of the most senior POWs at Stalag Luft 13 when African-American 1st Lt. Lincoln Scott, P-51 pilot, arrives as a new prisoner in May of 1944. Abrasively antisocial, lone-wolf Scott isolates himself from the other American officers, and quickly becomes the target of racial hatred from oft-decorated, Mississippi-born Capt. Vincent Bedford, aka ""Trader Vic""--a treacherous wheeler-dealer who will barter anything to friend or enemy alike. He is soon found in the latrine with his throat cut and Hart is appointed to defend the obvious suspect, Scott, against what seems to be his impending rendezvous with a firing squad. Facing almost hopeless odds, Hart enlists the aid of two British POWs with astute forensic credentials. Slowly, a pattern of deceit begins to take shape, revealing duplicity from both POWs and captors. Katzenbach's setting is flawlessly grim, and his characters chillingly reveal the divisive bigotry of soldiers ostensibly fighting for the same values, as well as some unexpected sources of redemption. Despite some unnecessary repetitive details (e.g., the ineffectively recurring symbol of Hart's cherished wristwatch), this deeply affecting, artfully paced war epic will hold readers enthralled to the nail-biting end. Military Book Club and Literary Guild alternates; film rights to MGM. (Apr.)
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