World War II Secret Agents | RA Crossroads

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to Readers’ Advisory (RA) Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection RA service goes where it may. In this column, World War II secret agents lead me down a winding path.


Gross, Andrew. The One Man. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Aug. 2016. 432p. ISBN 9781250079503. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466892187. THRILLER
oneman.jpg82616There’s no way to measure fully the manifold cost to humanity inflicted by Nazi Germany. In addition to the unfathomable loss of life, what innovations—music, novels, paintings, scientific breakthroughs—never came to be because of the Holocaust? That question drives Gross’s historical thriller, set in part in the nightmare world of Auschwitz, where Alfred Mendl, an expert in electromagnetic physics, possesses the knowledge needed to build the atomic bomb. The Nazis, having no idea who Mendl is, have destroyed his work, turning his papers into muddy trash. When Mendl meets Leo, a fellow prisoner and young chess master with an incredible memory, he sees an opportunity to keep his research alive, filling Leo’s head with formulas. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) needs Mendl’s expertise, and in the United States, plans are afoot to break Mendl out of the camp. Of course, the only way to get him out is to send someone else in. Thus, Gross’s tense and harrowing story portrays how one extraordinarily brave soldier attempts the unthinkable, producing nail-biting suspense, a mournful ode to those who endured the camps, and an exploration of what constitutes a civil and spiritual life.


Furst, Alan. A Hero of France. Random. May 2016. 256p. ISBN 9780812996494. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780812996500. THRILLER
This spy thriller from a master of atmospheric suspense aherooffrance.jpg82616explores in full what Gross only addresses in passing, the knife-edge lives of those who fought in the French Resistance during World War II. Based in Paris, Mathieu leads a small band of agents who rescue airmen shot down on the French side of the Channel and return them  to England. Working in and out of cafés, he turns to  operatives and ordinary citizens to retrieve the necessary documents, clothing, and transportation. And sometimes at night he spends time with Joëlle, a woman unaware of his clandestine missions. Mathieu is good at his job, and soon the British want in on his operations, putting his group at risk. The Nazis are also at the door, searching for the weak link that will expose his network. Furst excels in seamlessly layering historic detail with plotting of economy and elegance in this heroic tale that will please readers of Gross.

Iles, Greg. Black Cross. Signet. 1995. 656p. ISBN 9780451185198. pap. $9.99; ebk. ISBN 9781101146361. F
While plotting an adrenaline novel around the infiltration of a Nazi death camp isn’t a new idea, Iles offers a brutal take on the familiar subject in this sophomore effort, after Spandau Phoenix. Instead of the atomic bomb, the threat comes from chemical agents. The Nazis are weaponizing nerve gas in a special camp, using the inmates as test subjects. England hatches a plot to stop the Reich, one with a devastating price. Leading the effort from outside the camp is Mark McConnell, an American doctor researching poisonous gases at Oxford, and Jonas Stern, a battle-hardened Jewish assassin. Closer to the camps are Resistance members essential to the cause. Interlaced with Stern’s and McConnell’s movements is a savage story of life within the camps. Gross fans are likely to become immersed in this work, which races through more than 600 pages with hot intensity.

Keizer, Gregg. The Longest Night. Putnam. 2004. 384p. ISBN 9780399151705; o.p. but widely held. THRILLER
longestnight.jpg82616Action, morality, and tragedy combine in this high-octane thriller that traces a Jewish American mobster as he travels behind enemy lines in an attempt to steal a transport train and save the Jews on board, aiming to destroy Germany’s reputation. To pull it off, he and a group of Resistance fighters have to smuggle themselves onto the train, surrendering themselves for a few hours into Nazi hands. Mouse Weiss is handpicked when his hit on behalf of crime boss Meyer Lansky goes south. Mouse needs to get out of town for a while, and what better way than to run the train heist operation that Lansky is bankrolling. Pitted against Mouse and his team are a pair of SS officers and a London gangster Mouse has managed to rub the wrong way. The melancholic story moves from taut procedural to mob tale to commando operation; an appealing choice for fans of The One Man looking for more tales of sacrifice and daring.


Bascomb, Neal. The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission To Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb. Houghton Harcourt. May 2016. 400p. ISBN 9780544368057. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780544368064. HIST
Led by the United States, with support from the UK and Canada, the Manhattan Project was not the only effort under way during World War II to establish an atomic weapon. Nazi Germany was attempting to build a bomb as well. With physicists on its side and many of the required elements, except for heavy water, an essential ingredient only available from Norway’s Vemork production facility, Germany battled to keep the plant active, while the Allies sought to destroy the remote center and prevent the enemy’s advances. In this highly fluid account of that critical mission, much of which reads like a spy thriller, Bascomb documents the various attempts by the Allies to stop production or face horrific consequences if they failed.

Fetter-Vorm, Jonathan. Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb. Hill & Wang: Farrar. 2013. 160p. illus. ISBN 9780809093557. pap. $14.95. HIST/GRAPHIC NOVELS
Gross’s novel doesn’t spend a great deal of time on the trinity.jpg82616creation, science behind, or long-reverberating effects of the atomic bomb. For readers wishing to fill in that history there are several routes to consider, including Fetter-Vorm’s debut graphic novel describing the development and first use of the weapon. With straightforward text and an exciting mix of panel layouts and black-and-white line drawings, this work guides readers from the early atomic discoveries, through World War II, up to the global crisis that has followed in the wake of nuclear weaponry. Those in search of an authoritative account should turn to Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City, which offers a focused investigation of the contributions of women.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. Hill & Wang: Farrar. 2006. 144p. tr. from French by Marion Wiesel. ISBN 9780374500016. pap. $9.95; ebk. ISBN 9781466805361. AUTOBIOG
The searing facts of the Holocaust are overwhelming, but the testimony of survivors and the careful research of historians form an essential body of work important to reference when a fictional counterpart is available. Nobel Laureate Wiesel shares his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald in this highly regarded autobiography. At age 15, Wiesel and his family were transported to Auschwitz. Together with his father, he suffered terrible privations at the hands of the Nazis and the camps’ dehumanizing effects. Additional works to suggest include Art Spiegelman’s two-part graphic novel Maus, Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.


Griffin, W.E.B. & William E. Butterworth IV. Honor Bound. (Honor Bound, Bk. 1). 18 CDs. 22 hrs. Brilliance. 1994. ISBN 9781501239854. $87.97. F
The “Honor Bound” series should strike a cord with fans of honorbound.jpg82616The One Man as it involves some of the same characters and threads. OSS officer Cletus Frade is charged, through various missions, to uncover Nazi operations and stop them. In this opening volume, Frade attempts to interrupt Nazi supply runs and in the process discovers his own history. The books are primarily set in Argentina but also wander farther afield. As with Gross’s work, the exploits of both real and imagined historical figures populate this story. Expect plenty of twists, turns, and in-depth period detail. With great verve, Scott Brick reads all but the first two books in the series (now up to seven volumes). It’s best to experience the titles in order. Readers will delight in Dick Hill’s narration of the series opener.

Silva, Daniel. A Death in Vienna. 9 CDs. 10 hrs. 48 min. Books on Tape. 2004. ISBN 9780736697439. $96. F
Superspy Gabriel Allon routinely places himself and his band of agents in harm’s way, most recently sending an undercover agent into the stronghold of ISIS (Black Widow). In this earlier book in the series, Silva takes a historical turn, placing some of the action back in time, during the Holocaust, when our protagonist’s mother is in the hands of an infamous Nazi. The story returns to the present day when that soldier, living well and under an assumed name, travels across continents as Allon and cohorts effect a long-delayed justice. Narrator John Lee perfectly voices the range of individuals and accents, from European and Middle Eastern to American and South American. His subtle characterizations keep the many players straight in the minds of readers; his command of pacing renders an enjoyable listen.


Cloak and Dagger. b/w. Fritz Lang, Warner Bros. 2013 (1946). DVD UPC 0887090062107. $19.99. THRILLER
Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper), a scientist working on the Manhattan Project, is drafted into the OSS when word comes that a brilliant German researcher has escaped into Switzerland with news of the Nazi plan to build an atomic bomb. A plot is quickly hatched to smuggle her out of Europe, but the scheme goes awry, leaving another scientist under the thumb of the Germans in Italy the only hope for the Allies. A tense border crossing, traps, romance, heroics, and a shootout follow. Released a year after World War II ended, in 1946, the movie is dated but adventuresome. It makes for contextual viewing, complete with an early moment referencing the destructive power of the bomb. Fans of Gross will discover several parallels in story and scene.

Schindler’s List.  color & b/w. Steven Spielberg, Universal Studios. 2013 (1993). DVD UPC 025192168857. $14.98. DRAMA
schindlerslist.jpg82616Spielberg’s film relays both the history of the Holocaust and that of German playboy businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who saves more than a thousand people otherwise sentenced to the death camps by employing them in his factories. The movie begins as Germany invades Poland and demands that all Jewish citizens register and move to the city centers. The forced resettlement in ghettos and later transfer to concentration camps run parallel to Schindler’s rise and awakening to his duty. His employee roster comes to mean salvation, as he protects more and more workers, spending his fortune to ensure their safety. The facts of history are agonizing, and Spielberg’s screen rendition pulls few punches in depicting the depravity of the Nazis. The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and is on the National Film Registry.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at