I loved Len Rosen’s debut mystery, All Cry Chaos, featuring Interpol detective Henri Poincaré and his quest to solve a mathematician’s murder. “Like Dan Brown, only smarter and believable” was the wrap-up to my review, and I ranked All Cry Chaos #1 on my list of last year’s Edgar nominees for Best First Novel.
In the debut novel, Poincaré is a mature man, well-established in his career. In fact, reaching retirement. So where can Rosen go to satisfy the fans who want more? Wisely, he’s written a prequel. In The Tenth Witness, Poincaré is young, unmarried and not yet a cop. The year is 1978, and Poincaré is a gifted hydraulic engineer. He and his partner have been engaged to use new technology to salvage a 1799 shipwreck. He meets a lovely German girl, Liesel Kraus, on the beach and on a whim, goes home with her.
Rich, beautiful, intelligent Liesel Kraus has a rich and powerful family, and the family business – Kraus Steel – was one of the few that prospered in WWII Germany. Patriarch Otto Kraus was a Nazi, but following the war, ten Jewish men filed an affadavit testifying that Kraus used his position to save, not exploit, his Jewish workers. But as Poincaré gets more involved with Liesel, her family, and their business interests, the less likely this scenario seems. In fact, it’s quite likely that Kraus Steel is continuing to abuse its labor force in its overseas interests. It’s as Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”
Intent on uncovering the truth, Poincaré undertakes his first investigation, becoming more determined the more he learns. He works his way down the list of men who spoke up for Otto Kraus. Given the passage of time, those still alive would be old men, but Poincaré hopes to hear their testimony personally. But it seems someone is working hard to keep that from happening. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game, and it looks like Henri Poincaré’s the mouse. When, as we suspect, his worst fears are confirmed, we share Henri’s concern: what will Liesel do when she learns the truth about her family?
Not to spoil the surprise, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. It’s a hard lesson for Henri: Evil does not always have a snarling dog and a hard hand.
Rosen is a fine writer, and I eagerly anticipated reading his second novel. In my opinion, the prequel does not quite come up to the bar set by Rosen’s fiction debut. As a young man, Poincaré is a less complicated character than he is in All Cry Chaos, and the story itself is more straightforward, with an almost cinematic style. (In fact, I could totally see it as a movie!) Bottom line: The Tenth Witness is well worth reading.