My very trustworthy mother loaned me this book, but even knowing that I’m pretty much guaranteed to like her recommendations, it still sat on my shelf for ages because it didn’t sound even a little interesting to me. A war book? About Nazis in the snow? With a bunch of soldiers? Not really my cup of tea. Here’s the blurb from the back of the book:
“Eight Allied agents…seven men and a woman…parachute onto a mountainside behind enemy lines in wartime Germany. Their mission: to rescue an American general before the Nazis can force him to reveal secret D-day plans. HERE IS WHERE THE ACTION IS.”
Where are the spaceships? Dragons? Magic? Clever detectives? Here is where the action is? Please.
I have (re)learned my lesson. When I finally started reading, these characters jumped off the page and I was hooked by page two. The book starts with the small group of soldiers huddled together in the back of a freezing cargo plane, being smuggled to the Schloss Adler (a remote castle controlled by the Nazi Alpine Corps), wondering how they got assigned to what is probably a suicide mission. General Carnaby has been captured, and the information in his head will change the path of the entire war if the Germans can break him. And, as the men on the plan keep ominously saying, “Everyone talks.” They must race against time to find the General before the torture gets too far, and hope he can last until they make it to the castle – which is guarded by soldiers, dogs, helicopters, and only reachable by cable car.
It’s a breathless, dangerous race, full of brave plans, foolhardy bluffs, disguises, surprising compassion, and brutal double-crosses. Major Smith and Lieutenant Schaffer are the main characters, and they are fantastic. Smith is wickedly smart and is always thinking rings around the enemy, and it’s a treat to watch Schaffer evolve throughout the (very brief) mission to become a capable right-hand man. I worried for them, up there in the snow in enemy territory, even when I wasn’t reading.
The writing is great too. You really get a sense of the urgency of the mission: their chances of success of depressingly low, but they have no choice but to try it anyway. There’s a lot of action (“here is where the action is!”) but it’s not all guns and fighting. Smith’s verbal fights are just as exciting, and there were a couple passages I had to re-read because Smith had left me behind while he was out-thinking the enemy (through my own denseness; not a fault of the writing). A sample sentence, from a chase scene with a bus with a snow plow attached vs. a squad of Nazi motorcyclists: “There was a thunderous series of metallic bangs interspersed with the eldritch screeches of torn and tortured metal as the snowplough smashed into the motorcycles and swept them along in its giant maw.”
The book was published in 1967, and Mom’s paperback says “Now a major motion picture!” I will have to check it out and see if they do Smith and Schaffer justice. And next time, her recommendations go to the top of my reading list.