Book report: The ODESSA File

Having only ever read one other Frederick Forsyth book (his 1971 debut, The Day of the Jackal), I had high hopes for The ODESSA File.  And while it isn’t quite the classic that his first novel is, it’s a damn fine yarn just the same.  It did prove, without a doubt, that the greatness of Jackal was not a fluke.  Of course, his long and successful career proves that too, but I digress.


The story takes place in 1963-64 and centers on a young freelance German reporter, Peter Miller.  Miller drives a flashy car, makes a lot of money, and sleeps with a stripper.  He knows little of the Nazi atrocities committed during World War II and, like many Germans of his generation, really doesn’t want to know much.

That all changes when, totally by chance, he comes into possession of a diary written by a recently deceased concentration camp survivor.  Upon reading the diary, Miller’s outlook and attitude change completely and he vows to hunt down a man from the diary identified as Eduard Roschmann.  Roschmann was an officer in the notorious SS and became one of the heads of the concentration camp at Riga.  Roschmann’s brutality and inhumanity earned him the nickname of “The Butcher of Riga.”

Miller sets out on his quest, but finds that going through official channels isn’t very productive – many of the state and local government employees and policemen who control the information he needs are themselves either directly or indirectly involved with the SS.  Seemingly in control of all of them is ODESSA, an organization of former SS dedicated to hiding, protecting, and aiding their own.  Before long, Miller ends up on their radar and they determine he must be dealt with.

That’s as much of the story as I care to divulge here (I’ve probably said too much already).  One thing became clear as I read The ODESSA File – Forsyth is not afraid to do his homework.  The level of historical detail in this novel is extremely impressive.  It was all I could do to not get bogged down in it, for it was as fascinating in and of itself as the story.

Fortunately, that story is never weighed down by these details.  Indeed, the narrative bears a lot of resemblance to the fast-moving Jackal.  On one side there is a lone, driven man on a mission.  On the other is the force trying to stop him at all costs.  Forsyth’s particular skill lies in making both sides’ (actually three, in this case) stories fascinating, and in effectively building the tension as the they head toward their inevitable showdown.

If I had any doubts about reading more of Forsyth’s novels, I have none now.  This one and Jackal were extremely engrossing, and motivated even a slow reader like me to get moving.  There’s even a film adaptation starring Jon Voight that I will check out.

One word of warning – there is a frankness in the level of detail in this book concerning the activity at the Riga concentration camp that some may find rather unsettling.  I know I did.  Nevertheless, it’s a highly recommended book for fans of action, spy novels, or historical fiction.

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