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 A historical document with a perfect title.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.