Thursday, August 1, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: TIME OF RECKONING by Walter Wager

I'm not sure when I first picked this one up, but it was probably somewhere around the early-to-mid-eighties. And it was probably at a jumble sale (or 'yard sale' for US readers), as that was generally where I got most of my books back then. But I do remember this was the first time I'd come across a thriller by Walter Wager, and I came away pretty impressed. So much so that over the next few years I searched out more titles of his, including SLEDGEHAMMER, SWAP, OTTO'S BOY, VIPER THREE (filmed as the excellent TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING), 58 MINUTES (filmed as the not-so-good DIE HARD 2) and a few others I can't remember right now. But while I enjoyed them all well enough, none of them in my opinion came up to the high standards of TIME OF RECKONING.

The narrative is mainly concerned with two seemingly unconnected characters - a concentration camp survivor and an irrepressible CIA agent. We begin in the final days of WWII, where the US Army liberate the concentration camp in Dachau only to be presented with hundreds of gaunt-faced Jewish survivors. One of these is three-year-old Ernst Beller, whose entire family has been wiped out by the nazis. Fortunately, though, he's still got an uncle and aunt living in the States, and he's soon repatriated and sent to live with them. As he grows to manhood, 'Ernie' Beller sets out on a brilliant medical career, but he's also got a long-term agenda in mind, which is to avenge the deaths of his countrymen. Realizing that he's not going to have much success locating Martin Boorman and the rest if the Israelis have already failed, he decides instead to focus on those nazi war criminals who've already been sentenced and imprisoned for their crimes. And execute them.

Running parallel to all this we also get glimpses into the career of a maverick and unruly CIA agent known only as 'Merlin' as he rapidly makes a reputation for himself as the 'man who gets things done.' Moving into the present day, Merlin arrives in Berlin where he's tasked with tracking down a group of Marxist terrorists who are intent on blowing up as much of Western Europe as they can. At the same time Beller also arrives in Berlin to visit the first of his targets, unaware that he and Merlin are destined to cross paths somewhere down the line...

So on the face of it, nothing too out of the ordinary, at least plotwise. Nazis, revenge, terrorists, spies, CIA agents, shootouts. All present and correct. But it's really the style that matters here - because it's only after a few pages that you begin to realize Wager is clearly parodying the whole thriller genre, while at the same time sticking very close to the tropes and conventions of that genre. It's really a nice piece of work from a writer who made his regular living from these kinds of stories, although I'm not sure anybody else got the joke. On the back of my paperback, for example, there's a blurb from the Weekender that reads, 'A swift, suspenseful action novel written in a no-nonsense style.' Sure, it's suspenseful, and it's pretty swift too, I guess. But 'no-nonsense style'? I'm not sure what book that particular reviewer was referring to, because it sure wasn't the same one I read. And it seems he's not the only one, as there are a number of reviews online that seem to miss the point, as well.

But I don't know how they can, because it's so obvious.

Almost every chapter (and there are 48 of them in total) starts off in a wildy irreverent manner, as though the omniscient narrator can't believe anybody's going to take any of this seriously. For instance, Chapter 4 begins like this:

     Uncle Martin had once met Freud.
     Sigmund Freud, the one with the cigar and the mother number.
     It wasn't that surprising if you knew that Uncle Martin graduated third in the class of 1925 at the U. of Vienna med school and went on to become a full-fledged psychoanalyst. Even his few enemies had to admit there wasn't a therapist in his age group who was more fledged than Martin Beller.

Or there's this passage that opens Chapter 13:

     'He'll see you now,' Miss Rasmussen said crisply.
     Donna Rasmussen was a person to be treated with respect. She was not only the executive secretary to the deputy director for operations of one of the largest and sneakiest organizations in the world, but she was also the best female bowler on the entire CIA headquarters staff. Penny Levine had beaten her in 1974, but had been out of the competition since being transferred to Buenos Aires.

And here's the beginning of Chapter 16:

     Everybody gets born, but there are a million ways you can do it. Some are born rich, others are born premature, quite a few as Chinese, and a few theatrical types check in as Siamese Twins - on the cusp between Libra and Scorpio. It is better to be born in summer as you'll have a better chance of survival.
     Merlin was born American, lucky and optimistic - a trifle too optimistic. Freda Cassel was not in bed when he reached her small but pleasantly furnished apartment...

I ask you, how can you not warm to a book where you begin every chapter by giggling out loud? It's impossible. And as if that isn't enough you've got this Merlin character, who's the uber-cool superspy archetype taken to its most ridiculous extremes. That's not to say he isn't a compelling character, because he is, but he's also about as far removed from reality as you can get. Nothing's beyond him. Not only is he a perfect shot, but he's been everywhere, he's done everything, and he knows just about everyone. And he's got a witty rejoinder for every situation, too, such as when the Berlin police question him in the aftermath of a shootout at the local CIA station:

     The cop nodded. It was one of those messes. 'You have any kind of official identification, Herr 'Wasserman'?' 
     'No, just my passport. I'm a furniture salesmen.'
     'I'll bet.'
     'Tell your men that some friends of mine will be here soon, five or six men in cars and a U.S. Army ambulance,' Merlin said.
     'All furniture salesmen?'
     Merlin nodded.
     'All armed like you?'
     'Some may be carrying submachine guns. It's a highly competitive business, sergeant.'

Okay, so obviously the book's not to be taken too seriously, but does it actually work as a thriller? Well, yes it does, actually. Wager's too much the professional to allow the humour to completely overshadow the suspense elements, and so he makes doubly sure to keep the tension high throughout.

On the one hand you've got Beller's mission of vengeance, which is probably the most absorbing part of the plot, as he expertly plans and then disposes of one imprisoned nazi after another, improvising whenever obstacles fall into his path (as they inevitably do). It's like a warped version of Mission: Impossible, but with only one team member, who just happens to be a whole lot smarter than everybody else. And insane, to boot. Well, maybe not insane, but Wager makes clear from the start that Beller isn't exactly playing with a full deck (which is kind of understandable after what he went through as a toddler). And then you've got Merlin working against the clock as attempts to track down the evil terrorists, who decide to up the stakes by kidnapping the local CIA station director as a little extra insurance. Who's also Merlin's ex-wife. Whom he's still in love with. So there's that, too.

So as you can see, there's definitely no shortage of suspense. And it helps that you care for the characters too, especially Beller, whom the reader is fully behind all the way through (be honest, who doesn't like seeing nazis being murdered?). So when Merlin 'completes' his assignment and is left with an unexplained death that sets him on Ernie Beller's trail, you're kind of in two minds about the whole thing. On the one side, you're really hoping Merlin fails in his quest and that Beller gets away with it all, but you also can't help looking forward to seeing how these two bizarre characters will interact with each other once they finally meet. Fortunately, Wager doesn't let the reader down. He fashions a really satisfying climax (and one that's not nearly as action-packed as you'd expect), not least because the reader finally comes to realize that these two protagonists are both as crazy as each other. And just as homicidal. The only difference being that one of them is officially sanctioned by the US Government.

It's just a shame the author didn't continue with this semi-spoof style for his subsequent thrillers as he could have found a nice little niche for himself in the marketplace. Or maybe he simply felt he'd gotten it out of his system with this one. No way of knowing now, though, since Wager's no longer around to tell us his side of the story. As it is, his TIME OF RECKONING still stands up as a great little thriller that's unafraid to acknowledge its own preposterousness. And for that, it should be applauded.

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