Z is for … Michael Bar-Zohar’s THE THIRD TRUTH (1972)

The 2011 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog has reached the end of the line with the letter Z – and both my nominations this week, I am proud to say, are from author recommendations.

“We’ll get to the bottom of this yet. It can’t be all that complicated.” – The Third Truth

All kinds of people have turned to fiction writing after establishing themselves in other areas – historians, politicians, journalists, university lecturers,  soldiers, even spies – but it’s a pretty remarkable individual who manages all of these and then goes on to be a novelist. Michael Bar-Zohan was born in Bulgaria in 1938 but at the age of 10 emigrated to the newly founded state of Israel. A paratrooper during the Six-Dar War of 1967, he was a spokesman for Moshe Dayan, wrote a history of the Israeli Secret Service Mossad, wrote official biographies of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres and has been Labor Party politician. He made his debut as a spy novelist with The Third Truth, first published in Hebrew in 1972 and the following year in English.

His other thrillers, occasionally published under the pseudonyms Michael Hastings and Michael Barak,  include:

The Spy Who Died Twice (1973)
The Secret List (1975)
Enigma (1978), filmed in 1983 with Martin Sheen and Derek Jacobi
The Deadly Document (1979)
The Phantom Conspiracy (1981)
Double Cross (1982)
A Spy in Winter (1984)
The Unknown Soldier (1986)
The Devil’s Spy (1988)
Brothers (1993)

“As a result of this unusual series of events, the peace of the world may well depend on a speedy solution to the murder. Every hour that passes threatens to be fatal.” – The Third Truth

Given the author’s wide-ranging personal history and wealth of experience, it is no surprise to see him draw on his varied background for his debut novel, which one has to view very much as an apprentice work. Flitting between New York, Washington, Paris and Israel, it sees the KGB and the CIA unite to discover who assassinated a Soviet diplomat in the lead up to a major peace conference in Zürich. When his driver is later shot with the same rifle Jeff Saunders, a spy who has been left in the cold following a botched operation, is hurriedly re-instated and given carte blanche to bring the case to a speedy resolution before saber-rattling in Moscow spills over into actual warfare.

Saunders quickly uncovers a series if murders, all linked to an appalling event that took place in Dachau during the war and the book is at its best when bringing the past and the present together and depicting the legacy on those that survived, and one their families. It has much in common with Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File (1972) and William Goldman’s Marathon Man (1974), both of which also look at the continuing ramifications of Nazi atrocities as the background to stories about young men obsessed with the deaths of the respective fathers. Compared with those two works however, The Third Truth certainly comes off rather poorly, at best a workmanlike thriller, at worst hopelessly simple-minded, earnest and strangely naive. Things aren’t helped by some particularly hackneyed writing (perhaps it sounded better in the original Hebrew) that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a Gun in Cheek anthology – for instance:

“He let Martine seduce him as no woman had ever seduced him before.”

“A red-haired stewardess with a turned up nose and interminable legs was standing over him …”

In addition to such clunkers, the characters are fairly thin – there’s the burned out hero who has turned to drink but is now looking for one last chance, the tough but fair boss, the duplicitous femme fatale with the bedroom eyes, the wily old Nazi hunter, the demure librarian etc. And then there is the manuscript around which the whole plot revolves, a concentration camp memoir entitled ‘Letters of Blood’ and which it turns out really is written in the author’s own plasma … Indeed there is much in the book that is simplistic and also far too literal, sometimes making it feel very unsophisticated, like something aimed at a Young Adult market, explaining things in great details that have already been well and truly understood and telegraphed quite successfully.

But for all that, the plot rattles along nicely with lots of unusual little turns like the historical incident on which it is based, a fascinating if particularly gruesome incident that I hadn’t personally read about before. As the title suggests, the plot has three layers and to my surprise, I found that I only got as far as the second ‘truth’ but didn’t see the much more cynical and complex one with which it concludes (in a rather long-winded finale). In this respect it owes quite a lot to le Carre and Deighton (and Francis Clifford’s 1963 thriller The Naked Runner too) in its depiction of endless double and triple dealing within the secret services of the world, where innocents are regularly sacrificed without compunction. If this book is not really up to those high standards, both for its somewhat hackneyed prose style and characters and some outlandish situations, it’s still a highly diverting read.

This book was suggested to me by the indefatigable Mike Ripley, author of the ‘Angel’ series (I reviewed That Angel Look here not too long ago) and the brilliantly entertaining Getting Away With Murder column for Shots magazine which you can, and should, read here. He included it in his list of favourite thrillers published at the Mystery File site here. Thanks Mike.

Those interested in finding out more about Bar-Zohar’s life and his work should check out his official website www.barzohar.com and his Facebook page.

***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Crime Fiction Alphabet, Espionage, New York, Paris. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Z is for … Michael Bar-Zohar’s THE THIRD TRUTH (1972)

  1. Kerrie says:

    Thanks for your great contributions to the CFA. I have enjoyed reading them

  2. Thanks very much Kerrie for hosting this – I plan on one final ‘Z’ contribution for the end of this week but I have enjoyed this tremendously (I never expected to finish without skipping at least one week, so that makes it seems like a really big achievement to me). Thanks again.


  3. Bill Selnes says:

    I found your review interesting. Would you recommend starting with one of his later books rather than “The Third Truth”?

  4. J F Norris says:

    Sounds like you and I had a journey into uneven, slightly disappointing writing this past week. I read two early Q Patrick novellas that were amazingly similar and formulaic in plot yet published almost a full year apart. One was a real dud, the other had some inventiveness but some terrible dialog and Gun in Cheek style prose like above. It’s my latest post.

    • Hi John – I did really enjoy writing about THE THIRD TRUTH but it’s one of those odd things when you realise you still like the plot but a lot of the dialogue and characters are now so dated as to actively stop your full enjoyment, which is a shame. I prefer The books by Patrick / Quentin once Wheeler joined the team, I must admit so it is fascinating to speculate if Webb wrote those novellas (neither of which i have read – have they been reprinted?) were by him alone … I’m a big fan of their ‘Jonathan Stagge’ series too and hope to blog about those books soon.

  5. I came across a Jonathan Stagge book early in my blogging life (some time last year)…Death’s Old Sweet Song. Did a small review on it, but it’s not one of my better ones. I was just getting my “blogging legs” under me at the time…. Will be interested to see which ones you’ve got in store for us.

    • Hiya Bev, I shall go and find that. I am really looking forward to re-reading some of the Stagge books as I always felt they were a bit under-appreciated … we shall see if my memory holds up!

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