Thomas Cook is one of my favorite authors, but when I tell people that their reaction is often who? He’s been nominated for the Edgar seven times in five different categories, won for best novel, and yet, perhaps because he doesn’t write a series, remains criminally underappreciated. To me, fine prose in an essential part of any really excellent book, and Cook is one of the greatest living stylists in any genre, but he also has mastery of the other essential elements like character, setting and a special gift for the unexpected plot twist that seems obvious only after it’s happened.
In many ways his latest book The Quest For Anna Klein has all the ingredients of an ultimate Cook book. He’s always been fascinated by the corrosive nature of evil, and what fallible humanity can do to combat it, often considered from the point of view of someone trying to come to terms with a tragic past, and here his characters are faced with the ultimate villain of our time, Adolf Hitler. His naive protagonist Thomas Danforth is slowly drawn into a plot to thwart and then kill the dictator, more by his fascination with the conspiracy’s mysterious, still center, Anna Klein, than by any great sense of idealism. Cook manages to maintain compelling suspense even though we know full well that Hitler only gets assassinated in Quentin Tarantino movies.
Adding to the depth and resonance is a structure Cook has used often, as evidenced in the titles of books like The Interrogation and The Last Talk With Lola Faye, that of a conversation between two unsympathetic people, a dialogue that slowly wipes clean the dark glass of the past. In this case the post 9/11 exigencies of the present are a factor too, as a now aged Danforth is interviewed in 2001 about the events of 1939 by the narrator Paul Crane, a rather callow young think tank member, who has called for a passionate, almost irrational response to the terrorist attack. Danforth methodically teases him, and the reader, into the much more complicated world of historical reality, where there’s more than one evil, many of them masquerading as good.
As usual Cook manages to stay a few steps ahead without sacrificing either verisimilitude or a final, sustained emotional wallop. The titular character Anna is revealed kaleidoscopically, from many angles, and the pursuit of her true nature animates the book, finally suggesting how hard it is to really know anyone at all, even someone we feel passionately about. In the end we are left to ponder the fruitlessness of blind revenge and the abiding vitality of that crazy thing called love.
But it would also be a tragedy if our increasingly shrinking literary world were to obscure or marginalize as talented an artist as Thomas Cook. His fans, many of them other writers, will definitely want to pick up a copy of The Quest For Anna Klein, as will any fan of well written mysteries.