The Bookworm by Mitch Silver takes readers from a secret operation during World War II―with appearances by Noel Coward and Winston Churchill―to present day London and Moscow, where Lara Klimt, “the Bookworm,” must employ all her skills to prevent an international conspiracy.
Moscow-based Larissa “Lara” Menelova Klimt (aka “The Bookworm” to her friends) is a geohistorian. She studies how geography determines a people’s history, rather than political or cultural influences. She also just finished the manuscript for a book, The Origins of the Great Patriotic War.
Lara loves spending time in the Osobyi Arkhiv, pouring through Nazi documents and listening to the ‘40s-era Dictaphone machine recordings of dictated letters from Hitler, Himmler, and the like. She also has a shiny new teaching position at Moscow State University, and other than a divorce on the horizon, things are beginning to come together. When she’s approached after class, given a shopping bag full of six cylinders, and ordered by a mysterious man to give them a listen, she’s skeptical.
“You know what these tins are, don’t you?”
She peered in once more. “They look like the Dictaphone cylinders I listen to in the archives.”
“Once again, bravo, Dr. Klimt. Or is it brava, I can never remember. You’re looking at six Dictaphone recordings that just came to light. They’re full of testimony by one of the men who started the Great Patriotic War.”
“How did you get them?”
He grinned. “The word ‘commandeered’ comes to mind.”
“Have you listened to them?”
“No one has, not in almost seventy years.”
“Trust me, Dr. Klimt, we have ways.”
“This is madness.” She turned and put the shopping bag down on the lectern behind her, reaching for her geohistory text to put it back in her shoulder bag.
The young man quickly shifted the shopping bag on top of her textbook, keeping it there. “Your whole beautiful theory … all that Romanian oil and Ukrainian wheat and lebenstraum the Germans needed: bullshit, Larissa Mendelova. I dare you to go to your hideout in the Arkhiv, listen to the recordings, and see if your precious geohistory still holds any water.”
Of course, her curiosity gets the better of her, and she begins to listen to the cylinders, which are narrated by Noël Coward, the ridiculously famous English playwright/actor/dancer/everything (seriously, the guy did it all). Turns out he was involved in a plot—cooked up by JFK and Marlene Dietrich, no less—to create a fake book to convince Hitler to invade Russia instead of the UK. After all, Hitler was famously fascinated with the occult, so it’s not a huge stretch to think that he might be interested in a supposed prophecy that has him invading the troublesome Russia.
Here’s a snippet:
Kennedy looked into his glass and began. “Remember that story Marlene … Miss Dietrich … told of being Hitler’s good luck charm? Of his getting a clairvoyant to predict the future? Well, what if someone prophesied that Hitler is going to conquer the Soviet Union within the year? And what if Hitler believed him? What would he do?”
I went along. “I don’t know. What?”
“We’re guessing he’d swing the Wehrmacht around and attack to the east.”
My internal cogitator seemed to be running slowly that evening. “And just who would predict such a thing? Don’t you remember … they killed the fortune teller back in ’34.”
Jack leaned in a little, his eyes brighter than I had seen them before. “What if the greatest fortuneteller of all time said it would happen?”
“And who, exactly, is—”
“Michel de Nostradamus, a French prophet of the sixteenth century.”
I felt these transcripts were some of the strongest elements of the book. If you’re at all interested (I’m downright fascinated) in Hollywood/political figures of the ‘30s and ‘40s, you’ll love it. I’m also a bit obsessed with the Kennedys, so the appearance of a very young, just-out-of-college JFK was a treat. Also, the process he describes of creating a fake “ancient” text is really cool (dust harvesting!), and although the author provides lots of interesting tidbits, I would have loved to learn more about that.
Mitch Silver isn’t entirely successful in pulling all of the plotlines (and there are many) together into a fully cohesive narrative. There’s also a brief—though not graphic—love scene between the “American president” and his wife that was off-putting and didn’t match the tone of the rest of the book. At one point, Lara is asked to moderate a sort of “interactive town hall” where Moscow children get to ask questions of the American president, and she’s not really given a choice about the whole thing. What could possibly go wrong?
The “American president” is obviously a Trump stand-in (described as a big man, renowned womanizer, loud mouth, with a preternaturally self-possessed wife from Slovenia, etc.), but his name is never mentioned, although Obama is. He’s up to no good, of course, and gleefully plans to begin drilling for oil right in the middle of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These plans bring Lara’s twin brother, Lev—who works in the Alaskan oil fields—into the picture and put him in danger. All the “American president” needs to do is seal the deal with his Russian counterpart. Drill, baby, drill indeed.
The second half moves much faster than the first, and I really enjoyed the scene at the “town hall” where Lara gets a close-up look at Mr. President and notices that he’s donned eyeglasses to make himself look more intellectual—except there are no lenses in them. Sounds about right. This is a quick read that calls for a significant suspension of disbelief (as many conspiracy thrillers tend to do, to be fair), but it was a lively, fun diversion that will appeal to fans of The Da Vinci Code and the like.
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