Joel N. Ross is an American writer, and his espionage thriller Double Cross Blind was published in New York by Doubleday on 12 July. Oddly enough, it appeared in England, from Hodder and Stoughton, on 14 March.
Well, you wouldn’t expect either of those publishers to put out anything less than professional, and neither have they. This is an excellent thriller written in a wonderfully concise and concentrated style with lots of short chapters and chapters within chapters. No verbal diarrhoea here.
If you are sitting down to write a thriller, it is never a bad idea to look back through recent history, identify a turning point, and then build your book around that. Joel has chosen to hinge his plot around the event which brought the Americans into the second world war, namely the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
These days, of course, there are plenty of readers around who hardly even know who Hitler was, so you can no longer assume that everyone will appreciate the significance of events such as Pearl Harbor. So an author may have to explain quite a lot. Never mind – you can at least explain why it’s important when you come to explain what happened.
One American reviewer (of whom more in a minute), compares Double Cross Blind to Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle. Actually, a much better comparator is Follett’s The Key to Rebecca, which revolves around the battle of El Alamein in 1942.
The agent who worked closely with Follett on that book was Al Zuckerman. I once asked Al whether he had found it difficult to sell the book, since everyone knows the outcome of the battle anyway. (Well, they do if they’re of a certain age.) Al said no, he hadn’t had any problems, because the reader’s interest is focused on the fate of the characters; to the reader, the progress of the war is a secondary matter.
So it is with Double Cross Blind. We know what happened at Pearl Harbor. But that doesn’t matter at all, because we are concerned about Joel’s main man, an American by the name of Tom Wall.
Double Cross Blind is an attractive book in every way. I am not wildly keen on the garish cover, even if it is based on the British flag, but the lines of the text are nicely separated (32 lines to the page), and the font is a decent size.
More or less the whole story takes place in London, with just a few brief flashbacks (which could, in my view, have been omitted). The story is also nice and tightly concentrated on a handful of characters, and all the action takes place within a very few days. All of these points might be thought to be dealt with in thriller writing 101, but it is surprising how often they are neglected.
Furthermore, someone has taught the author how to use viewpoint properly. And another nice touch, one which first-time authors can seldom achieve, is that although each chapter/section is written from the point of view of one main character, and in the third person, the overall voice used in the narration of that chapter reflects the nature of the viewpoint character. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Duckblind, the female German spy; she is almost more English than the English.
Some of the British characters speak as an American thinks they might speak, rather than as they really did speak at that time, but since the main readership for the novel is likely to be American we will forgive the author for that. We will also forgive him for overestimating the likely quality of the menu at a gentleman’s club in December 1941. (There was a war on, you know.)
As is usual with heroes, Tom Wall’s stamina stretches the credulity somewhat. And the plot, frankly, is a tad too complicated at times. But this is a writer who has an unusually sound knowledge of world war II, and he is at least entitled to ask us to follow the complexities that he has clearly mastered.
At the end, the chief villain, as usual, feels obliged to explain his motives. This is traditional in thrillers, and sometimes I have found it tedious and unlikely. But you know, now that I come to think about it, I believe it is entirely possible that a dedicated plotter and schemer would be narcissistic enough to revel in revealing just how clever he had been, before condemning our hero to a painful end. So perhaps the aren’t-I-clever speech is not just an authorly device; perhaps it is entirely in character.
The end of Double Cross Blind is, of course, a forgone conclusion if you happen to know the outline of world war II history. But Joel provides us with a neat and entirely credible explanation of why what happened did happen. In wartime, difficult decisions have to be made. It is hard enough, goodness knows, to sacrifice oneself; but to sacrifice others may, I suggest, be even harder.
Students of history, and of conspiracy theories, will know that there are other explanations of why the warnings about Pearl Harbor failed to get through. These vary from good old bureaucratic incompetence (the most likely explanation) to out-and-out villainy on the part of Churchill, Roosevelt, or both.
All in all I enjoyed this book and regard it as a more than promising start. However, some American critics seem to me to have been needlessly ungracious about it. Go to the Amazon.com page for the book, and you will find reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly.
PW complains about clichéd minor characters, including a golden-hearted stripper. Well, you know, things really were different in those days. There was no pill, and there was a lot of VD about in the war; and there was no penicillin. Girls just simply didn’t go leaping into bed at the first opportunity.
Barbara Windsor, for instance, was an actress in the 1950s, and she has related how she didn’t lose her virginity until she had been in show business for some time. And even then she had to work at it. So I wasn’t troubled by the stripper character; who in any case wasn’t a stripper. Stripping wasn’t allowed. The girls who appeared naked in nightclubs weren’t allowed to move; not even blink. The men didn’t blink either.