Oct 30 2014 12:00pm

World War II: The Genre’s Best Fiction

For novelists, the Second World War is a canvas with the primary colors already filled in — a conflict of cataclysmic proportion that changed not only the map of the world, but reached deep inside the souls of nations. Moreover, it's the last major conflict in which writers feel comfortable embracing one side without reservation, eschewing the moral relativism which comes off as literary faint-heartedness in stories about subsequent contests between good and evil. Here’s my list of the best novels about World War II.

Exodus by Leon Uris (1958)

The British kept the gates of Palestine closed to the Jews throughout the war, knowing that other avenues of escape led up the chimneys of Auschwitz. Shining a light on this injustice, Uris portrayed the run-up to Israel's War of Independence through the eyes of Holocaust survivors fleeing the displaced persons camps of Europe. It's probably the only American World War II novel in which the British are the villains. Readers embraced Uris's narrative: Exodus became the biggest fiction bestseller since Gone with The Wind.


The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth (1972)

Frederick Forsyth's The Odessa File takes place in 1963, when Nazis were inducing nightmares because many of the worst of them remained protected and on the loose nearly two decades after Germany's defeat. A conspiracy of mass-murdering bastards who never quit making trouble serves as an excellent literary device.


Journey Into Fear by Eric Ambler (1940)

Eric Ambler didn't invent the modern espionage novel; it only seems that way. Journey Into Fear spotlights the devices he made standard—opaque central European and Middle Eastern bad guys; an ultimately not-so-mysterious femme fatale; the reluctant, amateur Anglo-Saxon spy trapped in a Kafkaesque predicament he can't at first begin to understand. A historical document with a perfect title. Dated, but still entertaining.


Up in Honey's Room by Elmore Leonard (2008)

Leonard's novels are the Chinese food of fiction: Forty-five minutes after finishing one, you can't remember what you read or tell it apart from the other books about impossibly cool bad-guy sleazeballs and good-guy semi-sleazeballs marking time till the shootout on the last page. Up In Honey's Room is something else. The hero is a Federal agent on the trail of Nazi spies in a Depression-era landscape. The characters are still cool, but different enough from the usual run of Leonard's criminal hipsters to leave an impression.


The Third Man by Graham Greene (1950)

The movie, which consistently ranks among the most highly regarded of all time, is based on a thin novella unpublished until the movie's success. It's not hard to take to a hero who is a pulp writer—and to an engaging bad guy distributing worthless medicine to former Nazis. But readers shouldn’t look for the most memorable lines in the movie:

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—­they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.

They were written for the film by its star, Orson Welles.

That only begins to touch upon the WWII genre, so take to the comments and tell me what books I've missed.

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Joseph Koenig was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel for Floater in 1986, and he followed his debut with three more novels in close succession, culminating with the New York Times Notable Book Brides of Blood in 1993. After a twenty-year absence, his critically acclaimed False Negative (2012) marked his return to publishing. His latest book, Really the Blues, is out now from Pegasus Books.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Gordon Bingham
2. gordonbingham
Really enjoyed most of the listed titles (for some reason haven't read the Elmore Leonard title - planning to remedy that). Have read Joesph Koenig's earlier titles and would enjoy winning this one.
3. panzy11
Enjoyed most of the list but have to disagree about Lawrence Block. He created the unforgettable Matthew Scudder and Keller characters, to name but a few.
4. panzy11
Sorry, got mixed up between Block and Leonard...mea culpa! Although i do like Elmore Leonard too :)
david hartzog
5. dlhartzog
Fine list. I would include The Night of the Generals and Where Eagles Dare.
6. Raymond Stone
In it to WIN it! Thank You!
lynette thompson
this looks like a great book, my father and step father were in World War II. I want to learn more. Thank you and Happy Halloween everyone
12. Tom Mathews
You should include Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett.
Thomas Mathews
13. unkletom
You should include Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett.
14. Shannon Baas
I would like this.
15. ellhesmay
That's quite a collection of books! Count me in.
Mary Ann Brady
16. mirahana
Would love these to add to my library. Thx.
Jody Darden
18. jldarden
Some good titles in that list. The Third Man! The title up for grabs looks good too, I'm in.
19. Tandi Cortez
Charles Volstad
20. ChuckCE
I think this looks like a really good book
25. ron frampton
malcolm womack
30. adamburt
It's about more than WWII, but howzabout Catch-22?
Becky Hantsbarger
31. BeckyIA
Yes, love for Alan Furst and for Ken Follett. "The Key to Rebecca" comes immediately to my mind. Or how about Len Deighton? But thank you for reminding me of all these fabulous stories!
Laurence Coven
32. Holmes
I don't know if The Third Man is the best, but it is definitely one of the best, and for those who are not familiar with this, there was a great Golden Age Radio series "The Third Man" and it starred Orson Wells as well. Obviously Wells was a great radio actor as well as screen performer. The radio series describes Harry Lime's adventures before The Third Man, for obvious reasons.
Pat Murphy
33. murphyp2011
Have read all but Elmore Leonard's title. They are superb. "Really the blues" looks interesteing. Count me in
iris sachs
34. iris
I have read and enjoyed all but the newest, Leonard. Would love to read Really the Blues.
Lisa Richardson
35. keizerfire
Love Leon Uris, I think I've read all his books!
Louis Burklow
41. Nash62
Although I liked this list any one about World War II fiction is incomplete to me without Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-5.
Karen Terry
43. bblol65
Jackdaws by Ken Follett was a great war book fiction. It was about a group of women who were spies against the Nazies.
Jim Belcher
45. librarypops
The guns of Navarone comes to mind immediately. The best books are not novels.
46. Tarzan22
Three books considered among the best of books dealing with WWII are:
The Naked And The Dead by Norman Mailer, From Here To Eternity by James Jones and The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw.
Justin Eger
47. justineger
That's a cool list, but it seems almost sinful to leave out Jack Higgins. "The Eagle Has Landed" is incredible, and is rightfully lauded by many. Higgins has a number of other novels set in World War II, as well: "A Game for Heroes," "Night of the Fox," "Cold Harbour," "Flight of Eagles." All good reads, in my opinion.
Gary Thaden
48. GaryandSherlock
I would add:
The Bridge Over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Maus by Art Spiegelman
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Debra Kidle
50. lubelle
My list would have included Catch-22, but good list overall.
57. Tim H. Moss
Good deal, count me in!
59. Whitney
Being a mother I don't have much time to do anything, so when I have a chance to read, I take advantage of it! I love books that tell a story and/or make a difference! I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to win this book!(:
Marcy Strahan
I would be thrill to read & review this book! I love all thing historical!
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