Ballantine, 1999, 551 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-42625-8
It’s impossible to be a genre fiction reader and not admire John Katzenbach’s audacity when it comes to Hart’s War‘s premise. What if, during World War II, there was a murder investigation set in a prisoner-of-war camp? Can you say “genre blender”? Can you enjoy a story mixing war elements, prison stories and courtroom drama? Of course you can. So buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Most of Hart’s War is seen through the viewpoint of Tommy Hart, an aviator doing his best to endure the misery of his internment in a German prisoner-of-war camp. That is, until a new prisoner is introduced in the volatile mix; Leo Scott, a black airman from the famed Tuskegee unit. Racial tensions run high and Scott isn’t dumb or meek; he quickly sets himself apart from the other men in the camp through his haughty and aggressive behaviour. So when popular “Trader” Vic is murdered after a long period of acrimony between the two men, Scott is quickly accused of murder. Under the Nazi’s amused stares, the Allied prisoners arrange for a speedy court-martial. But who is unlucky enough to be designated defence lawyer? Why, Tommy Hart, of course. In the absence of qualified lawyers, his stint at Harvard Law School is more than enough to allow everyone to maintain appearances of a fair trial.
So much for his plans to stay as discreet as possible while waiting for the end of the war: In the absence of anything more worthwhile to do, the trial quickly becomes a lighting rod for the latent tension in the camp. Assisted by expert British legal advice and capable Canadian muscle, Hart himself has to develop fancy survival skills in an environment where murder may be a front for something much more dangerous…
The beauty of Hart’s War is how it seamlessly plays with elements of three very different genres to form a coherent whole. The book’s characters are plunged in an unusual situation, while their actions are constrained with deliciously complicated obstacles. This, in turn, makes the lines between allies and enemies rather less than definite. There are more than enough surprising twists and turns to keep anyone interested in the story.
If the above plot summary seems like a crass attempt at throwing genres together to see what sticks, well, that may not be far from the truth. But it would also be ignoring that Katzenbach’s book is a slick and massively entertaining yarn. Among many other virtues, it’s a well-told tale that does justice to its premise and its plotting. Katzenbach may not be a particularly artful scribe, but his utilitarian prose works wonders at driving the story forward. Hart’s War is a page-turner in the best old-school sense of the expression. You may know when you’ll start to read it, but you can only guess at when you’ll want to stop.
Time and time again, the book takes an unexpected tack. Some of them don’t work (the ending section is overlong and sends what was up to that point a thriller into more straightforward action territory), some of them are a bit silly (Hart takes forever to guess the “true” story behind the murder, even though it’s patently obvious to most readers) and some of them work beyond any reasonable expectation: The contemporary scenes that frame the story are unexpectedly moving even though they’re patently manipulative.
Yes, a film was adapted from the book. But while I rather like the film, the book is much better. Less blatantly message-driven (the wonderfully acerbic Scott is an inspired character, one whose flaws are integral to the book’s arc), more realistic (Hart’s not a recent arrival like in the film) and considerably deeper when it comes to the details of prison-life, Hart’s War is still worth a detour for those who are familiar with the film adaptation.
All-around successful thrillers should be celebrated. With a brilliant premise, great execution and straightforward prose, Hart’s War has more than enough to deserve a look from everyone looking for a good story. Heck, it’s almost as if you get three for the price of one.