‘The German’ by Lee Thomas

In The German (Lethe Press),  a savage serial killer forces the denizens of a small World War II-era Texas town to confront their own homophobia and xenophobia in this unsettling portrait of small-town Americana at its most insidious from Lambda Literary and Bram Stoker Award-winner Lee Thomas.

This richly atmospheric period piece follows a trio of alternating narrators–Tim Randall, a teenage boy struggling to come of age during a distant war that takes his father overseas; Tom Rabbit, the town’s level-headed sheriff whose investigation into the brutal slayings of several of the town’s young men helps fill the void of widowhood; and Ernst Lang, the titular former Nazi party leader who is haunted by his past while yearning for nothing more than peaceful anonymity.

Amidst the innocent spy games and refreshing lemonades of Tim’s languid summer days of adolescence spent with his best friend Bum, there is human butchery afoot as a vicious serial killer dubbed The Cowboy begins to prey on local teenage boys. Found among the eviscerated remains of each victim is a painted snuffbox with a cryptic note written in German. Sheriff Rabbit and company investigate and are duly baffled as the corpses begin to pile up, while townsfolk spin conspiracy theories and war-fueled anti-German sentiments swell.

The German defies the conventional thriller parameters of breakneck plotting and time bomb-ticking suspense by opting for a deliberate, nuanced build-up in tension as each of the three very different narrators draw closer to the intersecting paths of the novel’s finale.

The result is a glorious slow-burner of a novel, firmly rooted in mystery with supernatural overtones that contour the narrative but never fully shade it in with ghostly color. As he did in A Dust of Wonderland, Thomas deftly sidelines any overt paranormal pallor here and opts to create his decidedly gothic-leaning mood in the unlikeliest of settings:  the sun-drenched southwest. It’s a gutsy literary calculation that pays off in spades by creating a unique hybrid of a novel in which the period piece elements dovetail remarkably well with the book’s police procedural, coming of age, and gay lit components.

Thematically, while the notion of a stranger in a strange land plays an obvious role, it’s in the exploration of the inherent nature of human cruelty where Thomas shines:

Cruelty is not taught. It is as certain as a compass point. One can be instructed in the specifics of cruelty, like one can be taught to use a spoon, a knife, a fork, but even without these skills a man will still eat. The need is within us. If man has any superiority to animals in this regard it is his ability to control the brutal impulses – should he choose to – but this is more than offset by the imagination he has been given, an imagination that allows perversions of creativity such as those employed by the Spanish Inquisition, and the prison camps built for wars. Torture is particular to man. He is very good at it.

Thomas further advances this theme in The German by relegating the specifics of the serial killings to the background and keeping the reader’s focus on the cruelty of his characters’ thoughts and actions. By focusing on the violence in the hearts and minds of the “good guys,” he shows us wherein the true horror lies – within ourselves. Like the English novelist Charles Percy (C.P.) Snow once observed, “Civilization is hideously fragile; there’s not much between us and the horrors underneath, just about a coat of varnish.”

With The German, Thomas chips away at the thin coat of varnish that separates the veneer of civility from the undercoat of barbarism. The result is a novel that builds slowly – with painstaking attention paid to character development and the establishment of mood – to an unexpectedly fierce, heartrending finale that’s less an eyebrow-raising surprise and more a series of rapid-fire sucker punches that will leave you slack-jawed and breathless. Devastating in its unflinching look at the nature of human cruelty arising from fear of the unknown and gorgeously rendered in a literary style that calls to mind earlier Peter Straub, The German is this summer’s must-read genre title.

The German
by Lee Thomas
Lethe Press
Paperback, 9781590213094, 290 pp.
March 2011