The Detour, Andromeda Romano-Lax, Soho Press, 2012, 320 pp
Andromeda Romano-Lax is worthy of being much more widely known. In other words, she would be loved, feted, and sought after if she were promoted more. But she is not published by one of the big houses and she doesn't write about vampires or sado-masochistic love affairs. Soho Press is fairly small in today's publishing scheme of things. For what it is worth, I am here to tell you that she is truly a great writer.
The Detour is her second novel, following the wonderful Spanish Bow. Again it is historical and lies on the fault line between art and politics. If it were not so beautifully written, it would be labeled a historical thriller. The unwitting Ernst Vogler, thinking he is really getting somewhere in the Third Reich, has been sent to Rome to pick up a famous ancient marble statue, The Discus Thrower.
All he has to do is get it to the Italian/German border and turn it over to the Gestapo. The Fuhrer has added art thief to his roster of dastardly deeds, but it turns out he has gotten in over his head. There are more dastardly art thieves who are counting on Hitler's sudden interest in art to raise the stakes.
Ernst Vogler has a sorrowful past including an alcoholic and abusive working class father and a secret physical deformity. In the 1938 world of Germany's fascination with youthful physical perfection, Ernst has nothing going for him except his recently acquired position with Hitler's Sonderprojekte (translates as Special Project.) On all levels, personal, political, and passionate (the young man is an art geek bordering on obsessive), he needs to make good.
Of course nothing goes right and Vogler spends the entire story getting a grip, finding his strengths and losing his innocence both politically and in matters of the heart. Once the novel gets going, it is a hair-raising bloody tale filled with desperate characters both Italian and German.
This was the first book I downloaded onto the iPad I got for my birthday in August, so I had to overcome two barriers. I got 22 pages in and felt so adrift that I quit reading it for two months, blaming my troubles on being an eReader virgin. But truthfully, the novel has a slow, confusing opening that does not draw the reader into the story. Risky!
Once I got back to reading it, I saw that the author was putting me directly and immediately into Ernst Vogler's viewpoint: his lack of self confidence, his bumbling ways, and his confusion about what was happening with the statue he revered. The protagonist's traits became mine as a reader. Risky indeed!
Ernst finally completes the transaction with the Italian art dealer and gets the statue loaded onto a truck. He has hired two drivers, Italian twins, but doesn't speak Italian. He can barely decipher the map they are following. Eventually it dawns on him that they are far off from the planned route to the border and have taken a detour for reasons known only to the drivers.
Underlying what becomes a thrilling tale is the theme of the ways that evil infects those who become involved with it. The reader perceives all this through the eyes and mind of Ernst. The lulls in the plot serve to depict this young man's dawning self-knowledge. He moves away from the fear that was driving him into the most intense human involvement he has known thus far in his short life.