Monday, November 26, 2018

the last book I read

Marathon Man by William Goldman.

Thomas "Babe" Levy is a history student at Columbia University and an aspiring marathon runner, with dreams of emulating his running heroes Paavo Nurmi and Abebe Bikila. Babe's father was a Jewish professor brought down by being suspected of communist sympathies during the McCarthy era, and who eventually killed himself, and Babe's studies are building towards the dissertation which he hopes will clear his father's name.

Babe has an elder brother, Doc. A more assertive character, Doc is a high-ranking executive in the oil industry and drops in on Babe's New York apartment occasionally to keep a benign eye on his little brother. At least, this is what Babe thinks Doc does for a living; the truth is somewhat more exotic and dangerous, as we'll see.

Meanwhile, murky things are afoot. After an elderly German called Kaspar Szell (though this is not the name he went by publicly) dies in a car accident in Manhattan, his son, Christian Szell, leaves his hideaway in Paraguay and travels to New York. This is a high-risk activity for Szell, since he is a high-profile Nazi war criminal and a former associate of the notorious Josef Mengele, and there are quite a number of people who might like to Have A Word if he ever popped his head over the parapet. But sometimes risks need to be taken, and this is one of those times; Szell senior had been the custodian of a large stash of diamonds Szell junior had stolen or extorted (in exchange, presumably, for more merciful treatment) from prisoners in Auschwitz, and occasionally sold off a few to realise some cash for his son. Now that this arrangement is defunct, Szell wants to come and collect the diamonds so that he can handle these matters himself. He can't really delegate the task to anyone else, as much as he might like to, as the diamonds are held in a safety deposit box at a bank and it has to be a family member who acts as a proxy.

The problem is that the various middle-men you have to associate with to facilitate this sort of international money-laundering are inherently untrustworthy, even when, as here, some of them work for murky branches of the US government. Szell's associate with the codename Scylla, for instance, works for The Division, some murky plausibly-deniable adjunct of the CIA. On arrival in New York Szell arranges a meeting with Scylla in a secluded spot by the banks of the Hudson and, unable to satisfy himself of Scylla's trustworthiness, guts him like a fish with a retractable blade that he keeps up his sleeve for exactly this sort of occasion. But was Scylla the only threat to Szell's safety? Did he have any associates? Was there a contingency plan already in place in the event of Scylla's demise? It's an occupational hazard to men like him, after all. It turns out, though, that Scylla is Only Mostly Dead, and drags himself off to an unknown destination.

Meanwhile, across town, Babe is at his apartment when he hears the door open and his brother Doc appears, bloodstained and clutching his stomach, and collapses and dies in Babe's arms. Babe is, as you might expect, a bit taken aback by this, and taken still further aback when some serious-looking men in dark suits and crew-cuts turn up and explain that Doc was a government operative, codename Scylla, and moreover that whoever did this to him is likely to come after Babe once they discover that Doc/Scylla made it to Babe's apartment before dying.

Sure enough Babe, who has agreed to remain in his apartment while the government guys monitor it (not very well, it turns out), finds himself abducted by some burly types, taken to an abandoned warehouse and strapped to a chair while a disturbingly softly-spoken German unrolls a bag of dentist's tools. Szell knows what a tough and determined character Doc was and suspects that he imparted some information to Babe before he died. But how to be sure? Perhaps a bit of the old unanaesthetised impromptu dentistry will persuade Babe to cough up the details. You never know what will happen when you monkey around with the body's periodontal atrium, after all.

After much drilling and probing Szell concludes that Doc didn't say anything useful, and hands a bleary Babe over to his henchmen to dispose of discreetly. If we know anything about henchmen, though, it's that they are idiots, and Babe manages to clear his head and ignore his throbbing teeth for long enough to make a run for it, and use his marathon training to outpace and outlast his pursuers.

Meanwhile Szell has decided that to hell with the risk, he wants those diamonds, and takes himself off to the jewellery district to get some valuations before going to the bank to collect the stash. But - the irony! - the jewellery quarter is heavily populated by elderly Jews and a couple of them recognise Szell from Auschwitz. Szell extricates himself from an awkward encounter with some further slashy blade-work and decides to just head straight for the bank. He collects the diamonds, but before he can make good his escape he is confronted by Babe, who takes him off at gunpoint to a secluded spot in Central Park for a final confrontation.

When I purchased this book (on one of my occasional trips to Hay-On-Wye, I think, probably at least 15 years ago) I assumed it was a novelisation of the famous 1976 film. Not so, as it happens: the novel was published in 1974 and almost immediately snapped up for filming (Goldman also wrote the screenplay). It's just about a perfect book for filming: fast-moving, not much time wasted on characterisation or internal monologues or lengthy scene-setting, and consequently very little was changed for the film. The only major differences that spring to mind are that the film has the two Szells being brothers, presumably because it would have been implausible for the minor Szell character to be Laurence Olivier's father (Olivier was 69 when the film came out), and the ending is different, presumably to provide something a bit more dramatic than the book's downbeat ending, though the same characters live and die each time.

The film's most famous scene, featuring Olivier's repeated "is it safe?" is lifted faithfully from the book, and pretty much hits the jackpot for movie villainy: not only is the guy a Nazi, he's also a dentist! I haven't seen the film for many years and I think certain scenes may have got mixed up in my memory with scenes from The Boys From Brazil, which also featured Nazis, Paraguay, Josef Mengele (though much more centrally) and Laurence Olivier (though in the role of a Nazi-hunter).

Anyway, back to the book: it's brutally effective, has no pretensions to be anything other than thrilling, which it undoubtedly is, and doesn't outstay its welcome at around 230 pages. It finally made its way to the top of the "to read" pile after I noticed William Goldman's obituary a few weeks ago.

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