Black Cross by Greg Iles

bookcover.phpIn January 1944, Winston Churchill asks two very different men to participate in a mission that must remain secret not only to the Germans, but to his American allies as well. Mark McConnell , an American Doctor working in Britain, is a committed pacifist. Jonas Stern is a determined German Jew whose original mission was to convince the Allies to bomb the Extermination camps.

The British have discovered that the Germans possess a nerve gas which is so virulent that it will stop an invasion force in its tracks. This threat must be neutralized before the planned landings in Normandy take place. With the support of a crack British demolitions team, McConnell and Stern will target a top secret German concentration camp where the nerve gas is being perfected in hideous experiments on the inmates. Their goal is not only to destroy the gas and the men who created it, but also the entire population of the camp as an object lesson to the German High Command. The British only have a small supply of their own nerve gas, but they hope to bluff the Germans into thinking they are capable of wholesale retaliation against any German use of poison gas.

The mission begins to unravel as soon as the support team hits the ground. Wearing the uniform of the hated SD, Stern infiltrates the camp to make contact with an informant. Black Cross takes the reader inside the Concentration camp, the chilling, sadistic Doctor in charge of the “experiments”, a young Jewish widow, the resourceful Block Leader of the women’s barracks; and a “snitch” who turns out to be nothing of the sort. The German officer in charge of the camp, who has served at the front, despises the Doctor and the sadistic and vicious Camp Sergeant Major. One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the portrayal of the society within the camp, with its hierarchies and survival mechanisms. Too often it is easy to view the prisoners in the camps as a multitude of faceless victims, but Iles’s characters provide a human dimension that brings the horrors of the camps to a personal level.

The plot becomes very convoluted, with many twists and turns. The middle of the book bogs down a bit with philosophical meanderings that may put off readers who are primarily looking for action, but the ending is worth the wait. Nothing is as it seems, and there are no stereotypical heroes here. Choices are made, for good or bad, as in real life. It is not exactly a casual read, and rather lengthy at over 600 pages, but “Black Cross” will appeal to readers who like historical and military fiction, with a substantial dose of suspense.

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