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The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler

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Steve Anderson
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The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler

Post by Steve Anderson » Mon April 25th, 2011, 12:44 am

In October 1940, Warsaw's German occupiers ordered that Jews be rounded up and crammed into neighborhoods that took up only two percent of the city. This was the Warsaw Ghetto: Specially erected high walls, barbed wire and sadistic guards doomed Warsaw's Jews to grim and brutal ways that were only just beginning.

One of the doomed is an elderly Jew, Erik Cohen, once a prominent psychiatrist. Erik gets by but is already skin and bones. We know little about his former life, only that he was respected and took some comfort in that respect. Erik's young nephew, Adam, is one of Erik's few lights of hope. Adam has a sparkle about him and might just make it out of this hell.

Then Adam is murdered. It's a grisly killing that leaves the boy's corpse horribly disfigured and tossed onto barbwire just outside the ghetto. Erik's shock turns to rage, and he summons the grit to find the killer. The clues are few and cryptic and Erik will endanger friends and family on the way, which would seem more careless if they weren't already so damned.

The desperate hunt is on. Erik and his old friend Izzy even cross over secretly into regular Warsaw, a chase full of riddles and false friends that will lead just where it had to. This isn't standard historical crime fiction. The story surges between: Erik's pursuit of an untouchable and crafty killer who, in standard historical mystery style, also symbolizes the dark era; and Erik's longing for lives and loved ones lost and soon to be lost, the former pummeling Erik in storms of emotion and nightmare.

Erik Cohen had been an atheist and modern Jew, but the old Jewish ways loom even as they're being eradicated. At times the dead seem to come alive like Ibbur in the Jewish Kabbalah, decent souls not sure if they're alive or dead. The ciphers and anagrams of that tradition will also help Erik cover his tracks — and lead him to the killer.

The dire setting of The Warsaw Anagrams outdoes the mean streets of most any noir novel. Those inside slowly succumb to misery and oppression, cold and hunger, and those somehow alive survive as ghosts of their former selves. It's a grueling wasteland churning backwards to a primitive state where good can rarely find its reward. Everyone loses and the more cunning often win. The story evokes noir in the fierce and hopeless way Erik and others scrap and scheme to beat rigged odds, well knowing they're well screwed. They will finish off what they pursue not so much to survive but to honor their dead and plunge a jagged blade into the throat of all those who thrive on making them disappear.

The author Richard Zimler is from New York and lives and teaches in Portugal. Zimler's novels include the internationally bestselling The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Hunting Midnight, Guardian of the Dawn, and Seventh Gate. He's won numerous prizes for his historical fiction, and the reasons ring clear in The Warsaw Anagrams. The writing is intense. Zimler is able to pinpoint emotions and desires with dead accuracy. The beginning and some sections favor loose, introspective narrative over action and dialogue that show the reader the way, but these passages work with great effect to establish Erik's longing, agony and the harsh fate of too many.

Near the end, when Erik tells the man who will continue his quest for him, "Beware of men who see no mystery when they look in the mirror," you begin to know just what Erik means.

This review also ran on the Noir Journal blog. Thanks for letting me share it.
http://www.stephenfanderson.com | Novelist, writer, literary translator

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fljustice
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Post by fljustice » Mon April 25th, 2011, 5:03 pm

Thanks for the review, Steve! Sounds like an intense book.
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Steve Anderson
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Post by Steve Anderson » Mon April 25th, 2011, 7:52 pm

[quote=""fljustice""]Thanks for the review, Steve! Sounds like an intense book.[/quote]

Thanks for giving it a look, Faith. The story is pretty intense but it also stuck with me in a good way -- always a good sign, I think.
http://www.stephenfanderson.com | Novelist, writer, literary translator

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