|Overall: 4.9 ||The Losing Role by Steve Anderson |
In the last winter of WWII a failed German actor, Max Kaspar, is forced to join an absurdly desperate secret mission in which he must impersonate an enemy American officer. So Max cooks up his own fanatical plan - he'll use his false identity to escape tyranny and war and flee to the America he'd once abandoned.
The Losing Role is based on an actual false flag operation during 1944's Battle of the Bulge that's been made infamous in legend but in reality was a doomed farce. In all the tragic details and with some dark humor, this is the story of an aspiring talent who got in over his head and tried to break free.
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It is easy to pass judgment on historical events: this country was bad, that country was good, this ruler was crazy, that political move was guaranteed to fail. Yet things are not always so clear-cut, a point that Anderson drives home in The Losing Role.
World War II and the German false flag operation are historical facts, but Anderson takes poetic license with the details, introducing us to an imaginary German soldier known as Max Kaspar. His geniality and optimism seem out of place in the middle of a battlefield, and yet the author depicts him with just enough hardness to make his persona believable. When an impossible mission is set before him, it is easy to wish for his personal success and to cheer him on anxiously, even with an ever-present awareness of how the war finally ends.
The characters in this novel are well-drawn. While some personalities may touch upon stereotypes, the author adds enough minor detail and emotional range to make his creations human and accessible. Flashbacks into Max's past help the reader to understand his present mindset, and subtle nuances in the dialogue reveal more about motives and suspicions than the conversations appear to discuss. The author's attention to speech and word choice creates consistency and clearly distinguishes each character from the next. Even as Max slowly loses himself in his role, the reader never loses his handle on Max.
More often than not, The Losing Role plays fast and loose with the basic rules of grammar — and it works. The sentences, much like Max's thoughts, alternate between well-structured and half-formed, complex and simple. Sections of stream-of-consciousness writing allow us to access the protagonist's mind, while more formally written passages convince us that the author is in full command of his pen. The sprinkling of German adds authenticity, and the combination of Anderson's writing style and well-chosen descriptions gives us the sense that we are actually present in POW camps, icy woods, or an old, abandoned theater.
As an espionage thriller, The Losing Role succeeds in capturing and maintaining a reader's attention; the constant, underlying tension practically demands it. The pacing is outstanding, as are the explanations of "tells" that give the German spies away. War novels are not usually my genre of choice. Even so, Anderson's book renders that preference wholly irrelevant through wit, charm, and a well-crafted plot. I look forward to the next installment in this innovative series.
(Review copy provided by the author)