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Prisoner Of Prejudice.
Hart's War - John Katzenbach
Member Name: MurphEE
Hart's War - John Katzenbach
Date: 27/04/02, updated on 27/04/02 (46 review reads)
Advantages: Suspense and athmosphere.
Disadvantages: A little slow at times.
Katzenbach has written six previous novels and was a criminal court reporter for The Miami Herald and Miami News. I have to confess that I have not read any of his work previously and do not recognise any of the titles. What drew me to this novel was the fact that I heard about the movie and little synopsis on the cover. The book is long at 615 pages and the ISBN number is 0-7515-2908-7.
The book tells the story of Tommy Hart, a navigator on a B-52 which was shot down over Germany and who has to spend the rest of the war in a German prison camp. He was studying law back home in America and wiles away the hours reading law texts and going over the fact that he alone survived the crash that killed his crew.
Hart’s war changes when Lincoln Scott arrives in the camp. Scott is a fighter pilot and black. He is the only black prisoner in the camp and tension mounts as racial prejudice rises to the surface. Scott locks horns with Vincent Bedford another prisoner who hails from America’s Deep South. There is unabashed hatred between the two and when Bedford is found brutally murdered all the evidence points to Scott.
The camp is thrown into confusion as a court martial is hastily convened. Hart is selected to defend Scott and from that point on a gargantuan struggle for the truth ensues. In brings Hart not only i
nto conflict with the Germans but with his own commanding officers. He enlists the help of some friends in the British camp and his first real struggle of the war ensues.
The book is very well written and the pace of the story reflects the prison life. Here are men who had started out with a will to fight the enemy only to find themselves cooped up in a POW camp. Katzenbach conveys the tedium of camp life very well and it is no surprise to find that his own father was actually a prisoner in Stalag Luft 3 in Poland during the war. He constructs the character of Hart slowly and surely until you feel that you have known him for a very long time.
Then the introduction of Scott brings change and tension to the camp. At this time, the black airmen had their own squadron. They were fighter pilots of the highest calibre and never lost a bomber that was under their protection. This fact is actually true although this proud record cost the lives of sixty fighter pilots. The camp is split in its reaction to Scott. The split develops along well-worn fault lines from back home. Those from the south despise the man not for who he is but for what he is while those from other parts of America treat him with ambivalence. Only Hart tries to befriend Scott and it is this effort that leads to his defense of the airman at the trial.
After the murder Hart is thrown into the defense and enlists the help of two British officers. Philip Pryce is a famous barrister from London and Hugh Renaday is a Canadian policeman who also flew for the British. This little team is all that stands between Scott and a German firing squad. Again the characters are well developed. Pryce, the older of the two is a gentle and kind man who has a reason for exposing himself to the danger of battle. His failing health is a constant worry to both Hart and Renaday. Renaday himself is a stoical figure, protective of the older man and the younger Hart. He has a policeman’
;s investigative mind and goes to work on the case with relish.
Lincoln Scott is a man of mystery and over the course of the novel he reveals increasingly more about himself so that you can feel what it was like to be a person in his predicament. He is classically educated and a volunteer. He is extremely brave and takes pride in the fact that no white boy under his protection was ever lost. However, he has had to deal with prejudice all his life and this fact has left him wary of white people. He cannot help but feel that all hope is gone when he is charged with the murder, a murder he claims to be innocent of.
Vincent Bedford is a bomber pilot from the Deep South. He is known to the inmates as Trader Vic. He is the person to see if you want to trade something for an extra pack of smokes. We see him as someone who always has one eye on the bottom line. He wants to make a profit out of his situation and seems to relish his status within the camp. Although you know that he is going to be killed, it still comes as a shock when it finally happens.
The Germans are portrayed as individuals rather than the usual stereotypes. The commandant of the camp is an officer willing to play by the rules but astounded that fellow officers such as the British and the Americans will continue to try to escape when he has forbidden it. There are Germans who patrol inside the camp whom the inmates call ferrets. Among them are three men named Fritz. Fritz Number One is the central character and his interaction with Hart and Bedford is crucial to the outcome of the story.
Heinrich Visser is the Gestapo man sent to investigate the murder. The Germans are concerned about what has happened as it could contravene the Geneva Convention if it emerges that there was German involvement in the death of Bedford. Visser is a cruel man who was once a fighter pilot but lost his plane and his arm to a Spitfire attack. His investigation of the crime
may help or hinder Hart and we are left guessing until the very end.
I have to say that this is an enjoyable read and the central character of Hart makes the novel. The pace is slow at times but this is in keeping with the setting. The overall experience of reading this book sheds a light on the experience of POW’s as well as the racial tensions that existed at this time. You could describe it as John Grisham meets David Westheimer. I really enjoyed the book and found that once I had immersed myself in it I found it impossible to put down. The conclusion is excellent; Katzenbach ties up all the loose ends in a manner that befits what has gone before. There must have been a temptation to go for the Hollywood style ending but he resisted and his novel is so much the better for it.
Thank you for reading.