Since its release least year, Lee Thomas’ The German has been building steady buzz among readers who are up for provoking, intelligent genre material. Initially championed in the horror and gay fiction circles, it deserves a wider range of readers as it uses a historical setting to probe contemporary themes.
On the surface, it is a serial killer novel. Someone is killing and skinning boys in a Texas Hill Country town during World War Two. He leaves snuff boxes in their mouths with notes written in German.
The story follows three different characters. It mainly arcs through Tim Randall, a boy in his early teens, whose father is fighting in Europe. With one foot still firmly in adolescence, he plays war and spy games with his friend, viewing combat in black & white matinee heroics. Looking into the murders is Sheriff Tom Rabbit, a small town lawman who is in way over his head. Not only is he under pressure to solve the murders, but a large percentage of the town is comprised of German immigrants and war time tensions coupled with the murders are creating a powder keg. The title character, Ernst Lang, a former German officer who left when Hitler took over, scarred from battle and detached from life, is hardened by his life and pride. Also, he is a a homosexual, who while discreet, would not be considered closeted, at least for the period.
Thomas deftly delivers these three voices in revolving chapters, each with a different tense. He gives none a clear morality. He is more concerned with how each man will act in his moment of truth than if the killer will be caught. He’s not afraid of taking his characters or the reader into dark terrain. He also doesn’t give those characters a perfect clarity of conscience that strikes them like lightening before they do the unspeakable. He has enough respect for the readers’ knowledge that once some lines are crossed, you can never completely step back over them again.
It is that sensibility that makes the theme resonate. The book could have simply used the fear of Germans as an allegory for the way American Muslims are currently treated and still have a highly affective story. Instead he goes further, questioning if cruelty is an inherent part of human make up and if xenophobia and homophobia are merely symptoms. Like Peter Straub and Joe Lansdale, Lee Thomas realizes one of the best ways to terrify the reader is to confront the horror they personally carry around.
MyteryPeople wlecomes Lee Thomas, along with Robert Greer, to BookPeople on Thursday, May 3, 7p.