The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin – Book Review

This was the only Ira Levin novel I haven’t read yet, so while I was excited to finally get my hands on it, it’s always a bit sad to come to a point where you’ve read all the books by one of your favourite authors, and there are no more to follow, ever. He’s not Harper Lee exactly in terms of output, but I wish Levin wrote more than seven novels in his lifetime. Or make that six, because while Son of Rosemary wasn’t all bad the ending made me wish I’ve never read it; truly a book to fling against the wall while screaming in rage.

Levin’s other works dealt with the Devil, sociopathic boyfriends, future totalitarian societies, scheming husbands, and here in this book it’s the Nazis. There’s even a real-life Nazi as the chief villain: Dr Josef Mengele, the German physician who performed horrific medical experiments in Auschwitz which earned him the nickname “Angel of Death”. In the first chapter, while hiding in Brazil, he has a sinister meeting with six former SS members where he sets out their mission: to kill precisely 94 men across the world, all of whom must die on or near certain dates.

What the conspirators find out later is that they’ve been spied on by a young Jewish man, who manages to relay the bare details of the plot over the phone to Yakov Lieberman, an ageing Nazi hunter. After his informant disappears mid-conversation, it’s up to Yakov to figure out the mystery of the planned murders. What makes it difficult is that Yakov doesn’t know the exact names of the victims, and nothing seems to connect them with each other or the Nazis: the only thing they have in common is that they’re all around sixty-five, family men and mostly employed as civil servants.

That mysterious common factor is revealed roughly halfway into the book and, without spoiling anything, from then on things get quite insane. Rather ludicrous and far-fetched, but imaginative and gripping, all the way until the finale which involves Dobermanns and one of the most satisfying wishful-thinking deaths since the ending of Inglourious Basterds. Yakov, who lost his family in the Holocaust, is a sympathetic protagonist, aging and ailing and without the resources he once had, but still determined to get to the bottom of the matter. The book was originally released at the time when men like Mengele were still alive and in hiding, so I imagine its impact was quite powerful then, whereas now it’s perhaps more dated. Also, other than Mengele and Yakov, the rest of the characters are rather sketchy.

I really enjoyed the book, but I’m not too crazy about the fact that my edition has a swastika on the spine. Totally appropriate design element considering the subject matter, but still I can’t say I want to see a bloody swastika staring back at me whenever I look at my bookshelf. I’ll have to tape it over or something.

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