Book review: 'Voices of the Dead'

Certain historical settings will always have immediate connotations for a reader. Choosing to set a story in one of those eras can be done for one of two reasons. The first is that the themes of the novel could not be better displayed in any other setting. The second is laziness.

Peter Leonard’s “Voices of the Dead” falls in the latter category.

Primarily about revenge and conspiracy, Leonard’s novel doesn’t contain any themes that couldn’t be explored in a setting other than World War II–era Germany. So why bring in the Nazis? The question is never answered.

Harry Levin, a scrap-metal dealer in Detroit, is a Holocaust survivor and a widower whose daughter dies at the beginning of the novel. Unfortunately, the circumstances that cast him as a victim are the only redeeming aspects of his character. Otherwise, Harry is crude, sexist, and rather unpersonable. It doesn’t help the novel is half written in narrative style that mimics his informal dialect, which doesn’t add anything engaging when you have trouble caring about Harry.

Despite his off-putting nature, though, Harry is a fleshed-out character, which is true across the board in the novel. The characters Leonard creates might not be likable, but they’re all specific and consistent. Their motives are often questionable, though, and the reader is left wondering “Why?” far too often.

Initially investigating his daughter’s death by the fault of a drunk driver, Harry finds a connection between his past and his present. The novel then jumps back and forth between World War II and the early 1970s. The 14-year-old Harry we see in 1941 is a lot easier to empathize with than his 1970s self. However, the flashbacks to concentration camps and mass killings — and the speed at which the present-day deaths stack up — seem to be done for the sole purpose of securing the emotional involvement of the reader.

Overall, the use of Nazism is a lazy way to create a hero and villain without working too hard on crafting characters to which the reader can connect. Not only is Harry’s position as the protagonist justified purely by his victimization, but also the only thing separating the main villain from his Nazi brethren is the insight we get into his mind that implies he is psychologically disturbed. Rather than following Nazi ideals blindly, he kills because he actually enjoys it. The characteristic may differentiate his type of evil from other characters, but it isn’t unique. Psychotics like that are common in the suspense thrillers you can find at your local grocery store.

The lack of justification is apparent in all areas of the novel, including the main romance. In the beginning of the novel, Harry has casual sexual relationships with women, including his married neighbor. Nothing about his personality is particularly attractive, but somehow Harry captures the attention of a journalist in Germany. He barely trusts her, but they quickly fall into bed together. Their relationship, along with Harry’s constant sexist observations and objectification of women, is distracting from the major plot of the novel, which is the hunt for revenge.

After Harry, our “hero,” winds up looking to avenge more than just the death of his daughter, he and the villain play a cat-and-mouse game for the second half of the novel. The continuous near-misses make “Voices of the Dead” a suspense thriller about as enjoyable as those James Patterson and his ghostwriters can produce. The novel is the first of a two-part series — perhaps part two will top this.

The verdict: Leonard can write a suspense novel, but it would be a lot better if he went below the surface level and got creative.

Reach News Editor Sarah Schweppe at arts@dailyuw.com.

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