The Tenth Witness, by Leonard Rosen. Permanent Press. 288 pages. $29.00.
Set in 1978, the second Henri Poincaré Mystery is actually a prequel to the award-winning All Cry Chaos (2010).It relates the events that change Henri from an ambitious young engineer working frantically to establish a viable business into an Interpol agent. It is a dark, painful story about the aftermath of the Holocaust and the racial hatred that enflamed a continent.
We meet Henri and his partner Alec as they put specially designed structures in place to assist a shipwreck salvage operation. Their contract has taken them to the Wadden Sea at the edge of Holland, working for the giant insurance company that insured the sunken ship and hopes to recapture its losses. The steel used in this operation was ordered from Kraus Steel, a post-war industrial giant that has sprung out of war-time enterprise that supplied steel needed for the Nazis war effort.
It is Henri’s fate to run across the lovely, intelligent Liesel Kraus, who enjoys spending time as a tour guide in this part of Holland that is near a Straus family estate. She and her brother Anselm are heirs to the Straus fortune, though Liesel is mostly occupied with community relations and charitable projects.
Anselm is interested in maximizing profits, and this means developing technologies to recycle steel from sunken vessels. Such operations, and others, take advantage of lax regulations in third-world countries, allowing Kraus Steel to use what is virtually slave labor and horrendous working conditions to exact maximum profits.
As Henri’s guarded engagement with Liesel’s family develops, he finds reason to suspect some kind of criminal (war crime) complicity of the Straus steel enterprise with Nazi racial suppression, abuse, and murder. He has doubts about what went on in the combined Straus factory and slave labor camp at Drütte, officially the Reichswerke Hermann Göring munitions factory. He questions the glorious biography of Otto Straus that daughter Liesel shares with him.
Something just isn’t right – especially that part about the ten Jewish witnesses who testified under oath that, given the wartime circumstances and the workings of Hitler’s regime, Otto was a fair and even generous man who made their lives much less painful and arduous than they would have been without his concern.
Though warned away from looking into the family’s past, and even physically attacked, Henri cannot keep himself from pursuing the truth. He seeks out documents in various archives that bring him closer and closer to the horrors of Otto’s operation. Moreover, he seeks out the witnesses who are still alive in order to substantiate their veracity. Perhaps they signed the document only to save their own lives.
He has an additional motive. One of the names on the list is familiar to him: Jacob Zeligman, a man who was a friend of Henri’s “Uncle Isaac.” Isaac Kahane was a Jewish neighbor and friend of Henri’s parents who played a special role in young Henri’s life. It now seems as if Isaac, too, was a survivor of the Drütte’s slave labor operation that enriched the Krause family. Henri needs to bring justice to those who once tortured this beloved family friend.
Finding the tenth witness, the only one left as others are killed during Henri’s pursuit, is Henri’s main hope of achieving his goal.
On several occasions, Henri’s dangerous mission brings him into contact with an Interpol agent, Serge Laurent, who has spent years working a parallel investigation. They are helpful to one another, and it’s no secret, given Mr. Rosen’s earlier novel, that Henri eventually becomes an Interpol agent.
The Tenth Witness is a gloriously literary thriller. The author’s handling of dialogue, interpersonal relationships, Henri’s powerful attraction to Liesel and his equally powerful revulsion at her family’s activities (both in the past and the present), the splendidly drawn settings (including Buenos Aires), and the clockwork plotting all contribute to a high-level achievement sure to bring Leonard Rosen more acclaim and more readers.
With great sensitivity and skill, Mr. Rosen brings each reader closer to a personal understanding of the undying power of racial hatred – a beast that he suggests lies within us all to a greater or lesser degree.
This review appears in the January 2014 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Charlotte and Lee Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).