We all hate the Nazis. I do. You do, dear reader. It's as Ron Rosenbaum concludes in his magisterial study, Explaining Hitler : an abiding hatred of Hitler and the Nazis is a sign of "truer sophistication" of thought than contemporary social scientific means of explanation. Objects of hatred, however, can become objects of fascination, leading even the brightest minds to dark corners (see, for instance, George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.). In less sure hands, the power of Nazi fascination leads to inadvertent exculpation (the recent TNT miniseries, "Judgment at Nuremberg") or to caricature. This is the route A Gathering of Spies by John Altman takes. Altman creates a battle of superheroes, straight out of Marvel Comics; one uses his brain, the other uses her, well, everything.
The novel begins in 1933 with the gruesome rebirth of German spy Katerina Heinrich as Catherine Danielson, her deep cover identity. In a near parody of Hitler's father's household, Catherine enters the house of Richard Carter, professor of mathematics at Princeton, as a housekeeper and ends up his fairly inattentive wife. Catherine languishes, forced to watch history unfold as her finely honed skills dull. Until 1943, that is. Catherine's husband is asked to be part of the team to develop the atomic bomb. Here, Catherine discovers the top secret plans. Here, Katerina Heinrich, Agent V.1353, trained personally by Nazi spymaster Hagen, is reborn, ready to bring the atomic secrets home to Germany by any means necessary and prevent the destruction of her Fatherland.
Across the pond, Operation Double Cross progresses under the stewardship of Andrew Taylor. This MI5 effort turns German spies against their homeland and encourages the spread of disinformation. Taylor realizes he is missing the element necessary to deliver his coup de grace: his old chess partner, Harry Winterbotham. Lukewarm on the war effort, anxious to do anything to return his wife Ruth (she is in a German concentration camp), Winterbotham could be the ultimate double-agent -- or the most dangerous rogue. When Katerina Heinrich finally arrives on English soil, an elaborate and bloody cat-and-mouse game follows in which the identity of the cat and mouse is always unclear.
Altman invites you to take his novel seriously. He thanks the journalist/historian William Shirer "for his books" (meaning, "I did my research"). He quotes Goethe for his epigram (meaning, "I have read my German literature"). But Altman gave up on any attempt of seriousness shortly after the epigram, choosing instead to craft a decent, if unthrilling, thriller. And for most people who pick up novels with lurid swastikas on the cover, that is what they expect: a battle of good and evil, with unstoppable villains and unflappable heroes. By resorting to caricature, by using the Holocaust as a plot point, he has created a novel that, mirroring its characters, cynically serves no one. A novel that could have delved deep into the nature of loyalty and betrayal, the conflict between the love for one's own and the love for one's country, turns against itself and becomes merely a gathering of spies.