By the Book: ‘Witness’ a Taut New Mystery

The Tenth Witness: An Henri Poincaré Mystery by Leonard Rosen (The Permanent Press)  is superb. A “prequel” to Rosen’s intellectually challenging debut novel, All Cry Chaos (2011), where the solution to murder depends upon higher-level mathematics—fractal analysis and chaos theory (what’s more, the detective is the great-grandson of the French mathematical physicist Jules Henri Poincaré!)—Rosen’s new novel is more accessible.

European history, not advanced geometry, drives the plot and resolution. Although All Cry Chaos went on, justifiably, to win prestigious awards, The Tenth Witness, which focuses on Henri Poincaré’s earlier life as an engineer, is likely to prove more compelling—disturbingly and memorably so. Gripping as an action thriller; heartbreaking as a doomed romance (the opening chapter makes clear that Henri married someone other the German woman he loved 30 years earlier, in 1978); and tragically contemporary about the heritage of evil manifest in Nazi Germany, its theme will haunt for a long time. The book is also beautifully written and impressively researched. One wonders how Rosen kept writing, though the epigraph suggests he had to. It’s from Elie Wiesel: “I still believe in man in spite of man.”

In deciding to do a prequel, Rosen says that he wanted to show why 60-year-old Poincaré in All Cry Chaos became an Interpol agent. “Methodical, thorough, ethical (sometimes to a fault), decent and relentless,” Henri at 28 is a highly regarded mechanical engineer, “a problem solver, aware of large systems and intricate parts,” a skill he also applies to his quest for truth. One day, taking a break from his job designing a dive platform over a lost treasure ship in the North Sea, he goes on a tourist walk on the Wadden Flats—the world’s largest (and most treacherous) tidal expanse off the Dutch coast. His guide is the beautiful, smart, exotic Liesel Kraus, the daughter of Otto von Kraus, long dead, and the sister of Anselm Kraus, since 1947 the CEO of Kraus Steel. Henri soon earns Liesel’s love and Anselm’s admiration, and is invited to spend time at their magnificent estate and think about joining the Kraus empire, if not family. Liesel admits that her father belonged to the Nazi Party—everyone had to, she says—but adds that though he was in charge of manufacturing at the infamous “Reichswerke Hermann Göring” Salzgitter metallurgical slave labor camp at Drütte, he was a kind of Oskar Schindler. She gives Henri a biography that suggests that Otto was “one of the righteous.” Indeed, after the war, 10 witnesses testified in a signed affidavit that Otto saved Jews. Liesel herself is revolted when her Uncle Victor reads out loud a little known fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm—“Jew Among the Thorns” (which Rosen tracked down in an 1814 translation).

Still, it’s an odd and ominous bunch that hangs around the Kraus estate, some of whom belong to the Edelweiss Society in Argentina. Questions about who did what in the war begin to plague Henri, especially when on a trip to Hong Kong, on his own business, he visits the Kraus Steel ship-breaking plant. What he sees disgusts and infuriates him—bare-chested workers “scrambling like beetles,” backs scarred from burns and months of bearing heaving loads,” men “all sinew and bone wrapped in rags.” Meanwhile, Anselm insists that Henri help him start up a new company that would extract valuable metals from computer junk, a dangerous chemical undertaking, as Henri quickly discovers. Given what he has seen in Hong Kong, he suspects how Anselm would run this operation.

Doubts mount, so do threats. Victor barely controls a pair of vicious dogs; the author of the biography Liesel has given Henri cannot be found in libraries; and the remaining witnesses, save one, as Henri discovers, who had scattered to cities all over the world, have recently suffered fatal heart attacks. Henri is not Jewish, but his family befriended a neighbor Isaac Kahane, a survivor, who became a beloved adopted uncle. When Isaac dies (of natural causes), Henri, devastated, wants to know more about him—he had been at Drütte, and his entire family was murdered. Different threads converge, like a steel trap.

The Tenth Witness is not a Holocaust story, though Rosen includes some shattering scenes of depravity. It is, rather, an exploration of the legacy of evil—of the reluctance still of many to admit the complicity of The Vatican, The International Committee of the Red Cross and companies such as General Motors, Hugo Boss and Siemens, in pandering to and protecting Nazis during and after the war. It is a journey into the heart of darkness, into the mentality of those who carry out such crimes, and a disconcerting look at the willing blindness of heirs, and of some of us, to acknowledge the racism at the core of man’s inhumanity to man.

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