A novel by Christopher Reich
Reviewed by Gary M. Lavergne for the Austin American Statesman
Few characters make for a more gripping and compelling novel than a determined Nazi and a stubborn New York cop set against one another.
Austin's own Christopher Reich follows his hugely successful first novel, Numbered Account, a complicated yet engrossing tale of Swiss banking, with a simpler but equally engrossing story of good versus evil. He feeds our untiring interest and mystic fascination with Nazism and the struggle to bring its destructive power under control.
The Runner masterfully explores one of the oldest quandaries of human nature: Should good people resort to evil to destroy a greater evil? In our own, less dramatic worlds, we face many such temptations.
Reich takes us to a period in which the character of the modern Western World is defined. He weaves his story around the single most important meeting of the 20th Century - the Big Three summit at Potsdam. In that setting, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman construct the Iron Curtain and hammer out political and cultural boundaries that lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union. Here, Reich gives us our determined Nazi, unwilling to accept humiliation and the finality of German surrender. He is eager to form a new alliance, with very strange bedfellows, to move on to a next war. Readers finish The Runner with a greater sense of how one or two bullets could have changed the course of modern history.
Erich Seyss is the determined Nazi. He is a German national hero, made so through glorious victories as a young athlete, heralded by Hitler himself as a fine example of German manhood and Aryan racial superiority. The Fuhrer calls him the "The White Lion." Through the years, Nazi worship of him diminishes little, even after a defeat by the speed of a graceful African-American named Jesse Owens during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. He is also a certified war criminal. Seyss, an SS officer, orders the cold-blooded murder of dozens of unarmed Allied soldiers at Malmedy, one of whom is Francis Xavier Judge, a Jesuit priest. After the war, Allied inspectors secure eyewitness accounts and photos of Seyss' methodical inspection of tangled piles of Americans, and of his personal execution of those still writhing from their wounds.
Seyss doesn't know it, but Father Francis has a brother, Devlin Judge, a former tough-nosed New York cop-turned-lawyer and a prosecutor hired by the War Crimes Tribunal for prosecuting Nazis at Nuremberg. Once Devlin determines that Seyss is behind the murder of his brother, he tenaciously insists that he be allowed to search out and arrest Seyss. Justice Robert Jackson of the War Crimes Tribunal gives him only seven days to bring Seyss in. He searches with an anxious intensity that clouds his judgment. Reich effectively describes Devlin's moral dilemma: passion, in the form of revenge, versus reason, in the form of deliberate justice. Devlin Judge agonizes over the notion that his thirst for revenge makes him as bad as the criminal he tracks; and he is also haunted by the memory of his brother - a priest who would counsel him to forego more killing and impart forgiveness.
From the beginning, Devlin is no match for the ace commando Seyss. But political, military and even romantic forces unwittingly level the playing field. Until the end, readers are made to wonder whether virtue or naked strength will win out. As in Numbered Account, Reich is at his best, and indeed is one of the best, at developing characters in a setting largely unfamiliar to the American reading public. He teaches us as we read. In the same way he vividly entertained and educated readers about Swiss banking in Numbered Account, German places and the days immediately following V-E Day come alive in The Runner. The fictitious characters are developed in a first-rate, believable manner. Egon Bach, the armaments manufacturer, and his sister, Ingrid, are children of the same war criminal, Alfred Bach. Although members of the same Krup-like family, the siblings are temperamental opposites, yet Reich makes it work. Devlin Judge feels unlikely pangs of love for Ingrid, the lover of his brother's murderer, but Reich makes that work, too.
Unfortunately, Reich's occasional use of historic figures does not work as well. He does what purist historians hate: He adds to, subtracts from, multiplies, and divides real people for the dramatic effect of a good novel. For example, rather than using his extraordinary talent to develop a crusty, curmudgeon, "blood and guts" warmonger general, Reich uses the real George S. Patton, Jr. and embellishes him until the is no longer real. "The roots for my characterization of Patton were drawn wholly from the historical record," Reich wrote in his Author's Notes. That may be, but beyond roots, on occasion, the author's self-described fantasy creates a minor but nonetheless unnecessary distraction to an otherwise sharp and sophisticated story.
The Runner is a great read because it is a smart book written by a smart author.