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The Quest for Anna Klein by Thomas H Cook

I knew of Chekhov, but was unfamiliar with his hammer until I read a passage in Thomas H Cook’s spellbinding historical novel-cum-spy thriller, The Quest for Anna Klein. The implement is mentioned during a late-night conversation in the hushed gloom of the patrician Century Club in New York City shortly after the fall of the Twin Towers. There, a bright young graduate student sits metaphorically at the knee of a mysterious octogenarian, who has summoned him to hear his life story.

The ostensible purpose of the meeting is for Paul Crane to draw information from the former anti-Nazi agent that might help the US government with its inchoate war on terror, but as Thomas Jefferson Danforth’s story unfolds, Crane hears a tale not of expert warfare but of mid-century European horrors, triple-crosses, dummy cyanide caplets and deathless obsession.

And Chekhov’s hammer? It refers, Danforth tells Crane, to the Russian writer’s musing “that at the door of every happy person, there should be someone tapping with a little hammer, just as a reminder, soft but steady, that there are unhappy people in the world.” It’s an arresting notion, and the text is laced with such cultural gems: the aborted plan for a monstrous Palace of the Soviets; the story of would-be Hitler assassin Maurice Bavaud; the sentimental US secretary of war who spared Kyoto from nuclear attack.

The model seen in The Quest for Anna Klein – a simple storyline overlaid with intersecting subplots and rich with fascinating factoids – is the same as that perfected by Dan Brown, which is no backhand compliment. It’s a clever way to produce an historical thriller that leaps between the early 2000s and Europe during World War II, the latter among the most trampled ground in all of modern fiction. It adds scope and grandeur, makes the characters more worldly and the reader feel smarter, and permits no flag in pace, even as Danforth languishes in prison for nearly 20 years (though Cook spares us any Solzhenitsyn-esque rumination).

Danforth meets and falls in love with the object of his affection during World War II, when he joins a small team of conspirators who plot to kill Hitler and sabotage the German war effort. Their exploits are recounted through Danforth’s reminiscences with Crane, and the seamlessness with which Cook darts between the two creates a lively, kinetic energy that never succumbs to the mustiness of refracted memory.

If the point is the titular activity, in the end Danforth’s quest is more metaphorical than literal. Anna is elusive, almost non-corporeal, and impossible for Danforth to grasp or possess. Even the most fundamental aspects of her identity remain in question years after her wartime activity. She is likened specifically to Joan of Arc, while Danforth perceives in her “a fatalism she had long ago accepted, making her seem like a woman walking toward her future just as religious martyrs walked towards their execution sites”.

As they plot the murder of Hitler, an undertaking which includes an astonishing scene of Fuhrer attending a viewing of his paintings with Danforth and Anna, it emerges that none of the many who in real life attempted the same lived to tell about it. Those who weren’t slain in their tracks inevitably perished in prison.

Cook captures the audacity and danger of this enterprise, and of the ensuing banality of being sentenced to life without such exotic invigoration, with precision. The Quest for Anna Klein justifies the effort of pursuit.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM.

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones