Introducing Peter Leonard’s Harry Levin
April 16, 2013 | by Faber Social
The opening scene tells you everything you need to know about Harry Levin. In three terse pages Peter Leonard sets his protagonist up for the remarkable two-hander that is Voices of the Dead / Back From the Dead. It is Detroit, 1971, and Levin is on the way to his office when he is ambushed by two thugs carrying knives. They demand he hand over his wallet. Levin complies and, while the men are distracted, reaches for his gun. In a scene that could be a sly nod to Dirty Harry, Levin swiftly disabuses his would-be-muggers of their larcenous intentions.
It is an unforgettable opening scene, introducing us to one of crime fiction’s most interesting and complex protagonists in recent years. Harry Levin is a Holocaust survivor, originally from Munich, now running a scrap metal business in boom-era Detroit. Later the same day he gets a call telling him his daughter has been run over and killed in Washington. She’s his last surviving relative. He flies over to talk to the detective in charge. The DC cop tells him she was run over by a car with diplomatic plates and that he’s been told to drop the case. Levin begins his own investigation. It leads him to a respected German politician and ex-SS camp commandant whose thirst for taking human lives wasn’t quenched in the swirling death pits and crematoria fires of the second world war.
The two novels detail Harry’s dogged pursuit of Hess, through Washington DC, a Munich getting itself ready for the ill-fated 1972 Olympic games, and many points beyond. Part of the reason I loved these books was because they remind me of the golden age of geopolitical thrillers in the 1970s, the works of Robert Littell and Alistair MacLean and Ira Levin (an intentional nod by Lenonard?), where history’s riptide and the shadow of the Holocaust are never too far away.
Leonard has managed to transcend his father’s sometimes glib narratives and create a work of startling resonance and scope. This is no tawdry exploitation of history. This is an intelligent and trenchant imagining of the psychopathology of an ideology and how it translates into a peace-time world. It is also a tremendously gripping and relentless crime novel, replete with lashings of humour, great characters, horrible characters, and moments of genuine pathos. From fending off roving packs of skinheads in Munich to the sun-soaked brilliance of the Florida coast, Levin’s pursuit of Hess leads us through the twentieth century’s deepest scars and battlefields.
The best crime novels often deal with the intersection of private lives and public events. Leonard’s two Levin novels are a testament to the versatility of crime fiction, its ability to entertain and thrill us, to unspool the past and place history squarely in the crosshairs.