The Zodiac Deception by Gary Kriss is a debut historical thriller, in which an American con man, educated by both Houdini and Conan Doyle, is sent to deceive Himmler into assassinating Hitler (available May 6, 2014).
“All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.”
That line from Shakespeare's As You Like It is uttered by the protagonist of Gary Kriss's debut novel about half way through the book, but it's one of the story's central and most interesting themes. Because if you think about it, spies and con men are essentially actors trying to convince their audience that the stories they are hearing are important and true, and they're playing those parts as if their lives depended on their success. For a spy or a con man, a bad review can mean imprisonment or death.
In The Zodiac Deception, Kriss plunges his protagonist into espionage's equivalent of opening night in a Broadway production where the actors have had hardly any time to prepare and their audience includes some of the most paranoid, bloodthirsty, and dangerous men in the world. The novel is set in Nazi Germany, circa 1942, and con man turned spy David Walker has been tasked by OSS Chief Wild Bill Donovan with the impossible mission of convincing SS Commander Heinrich Himmler to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
It's a Herculean task, but it's one Walker is definitely up for. That's because Walker is no ordinary con man:
“In any event . . .” Donovan riffled through the papers in the folder. “You ran away from the Home when you were eight, rode the rails and became quite a good little con artist. Now here’s the part that fascinates me. You persuaded Houdini to make you his helper when you were what, eleven? Twelve?” Donovan leaned back in the cracked black leather chair, which emitted a loud unoiled creak of protest. “That must have been something, working with Houdini. I assume he gave you expert advice on astrology, tarot and all the other forms of fortune-telling that you’re so skilled at. Ironic, isn’t it? Houdini used his knowledge to debunk that hokum, but after he died, you used it to swindle people. Seems you had quite a following on the carnival circuit, followed by a colorful career as a revival show preacher."
Houdini wasn't Walker's only mentor. He also spent time with the magician's close friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who helped educate him and passed along some of the observational skills of his immortal detective, Sherlock Holmes. On top of that, Walker also spent some time learning from legendary actor and director Constantin Stanislavski. Therefore, Walker is both a quick thinker and a consummate manipulator, and it's a lot of fun to watch him work his magic. Some of the most exciting scenes occur when he's forced to improvise and come up with a convincing story on the spot.
To carry out his mission, Walker must become Peter Kepler, an astronomer, and use his knowledge of mysticism and illusions to sell Himmler on the idea that its in the SS Chief's best interest to assassinate Hitler and take over Germany. Walker/Kepler is a fantastic flim-flam artist and showman, but not even he can accomplish such a task on his own. So, he makes the acquaintance of a number of interesting allies who are also actors upon the world's most dangerous stage. Chief among them is Father Fritz, a man who Germany believes is Hitler's priest, but who is actually a key figure in the resistance movement and a conductor in the underground railroad smuggling Jews out of Germany. The other is Max(ine) Elise, a film director and secret resistance member whose life is also dependent on her ability to play a role, Walker/Kepler discovers from newsreel-style footage shortly after meeting her:
Then the camera panned to the side of the stand, catching a slender blond woman in black slacks and a light brown sweater who was holding a viewing lens to her eye. Suddenly, realizing the tables were turned and she was being filmed, she lowered the lens, smiled and waved to the camera. The screen filled with her smiling face as the commentator continued to praise her in glowing terms: “Heroine of the Reich,” “True Daughter of Germany” and “Hitler’s Favorite.”
Fully awake now, Peter took in the image as the voice-over proclaimed, “She is filmmaking royalty, anointed by our Führer as ‘The Grand Elise!’”
Max and Father Fritz are just two members of a gigantic cast of supporting characters that Walker/Kepler meets in The Zodiac Deception. Some of them are actual historical figures and some are original creations, but all are fascinating.
Equally fascinating is the fact that Kriss's novel, like its characters, also wears multiple faces. Sometimes it's a bloody, dark, and twisted spy novel about a man undercover in one of the most evil regimes to ever control a country. At other times, it's a sweeping, grand adventure novel as evidenced by the sequence that finds Walker/Kepler on a dangerous trek through North Africa. Still, in other parts it resembles the film/novel The Prestige and the movie Now You See Me, in that it becomes a twisty thriller that uses the strange and often eerie world of magic to pull off elaborate deceptions. An example of that is this scene where Walker/Kepler improvises a fake magic ritual to convince Himmler that he's capable of conversing with a dead member of the SS:
When he removed his hand, Peter knelt down before Himmler and said, “Place your right hand on my forehead.” Then he closed his eyes. “Gods of the German People, who have guided their course across the centuries to this great moment of destiny, who have created a race of men capable of perceiving and accomplishing your sacred will here on earth and who have blessed us with our savior, Adolf Hitler, I entreat thee to send forth the spirit of thy servant Werner Ebling. May he speak through me to his brother-in-arms, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, and, in so doing, guide his beloved Fatherland. So be it.” Finished, Peter let out a scream and fell backward to the floor.
Even though I knew from from the beginning that David Walker/Peter Kepler's mission would ultimately be a failure, because of the way history played out, I still found the heroic journey he went on to accomplish it both fascinating and powerful. Kriss is able to wear different genre masks and switch between them as deftly as his protagonist, which makes The Zodiac Deception a perfectly paced, fun, and exciting historical thriller.
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