Any book that makes you wish you were a dwarf has got to be good.
Nicolae Ploscaru is a Machiavellian Romanian nobleman who fought on many sides-mostly his own-during World War II, and in 1946 he battles bungling big-power intelligence organizations. He's smart, tough, resourceful and his success with women is enough to bring taller men to their knees.
"If the dwarf had had enough to drink," Thomas writes, "he would sing with tears streaming down his face. then the women would cuddle and try to console him, and while all that was going on the dwarf would sometimes wink at Jackson."
Jackson is the dwarf's accomplice-a disillusioned and destitute former OSS operative who figures his future lies in the wreckage of postwar Europe. An attractive young woman hires the dwar and Jackson to locate her long-lost brother. Their business negotiations neatly set the mood of the story.
"It's a way to make money?" Jackson asks the dwarf.
"Is it legal?"
"Then I'm interested."
The object of sisterly concern is Kurt Oppenheimer, a crazed killer who knocks off top Nazis. Oppenheimer is of gold-medal caliber and used to be admirable, a sort of Jewish avenging angel, until he refused to acknowledge that in peacetime it is no longer kosher to kill. While working down his shopping list of victims, Oppenheimer arrogantly enjoys luxury by masquerading as an American officer with full PX privileges.
"The Eighth Dwarf" is about the search for Oppenheimer, and the criss-crossing of deceptions as the Americans, the British, the Israelis and the Soviets try to remind him of V-E Day. Motives and morality are complex, and best summarized by Ploscaru, who understands that the governments need Oppenheimer because they know "places where a spot of judicious killing might be in order." Ploscaru himself simply wants to make money and have fun. He perceives the subtlety of survival. Success is to "drink wine and look at women."
This is Ross Thomas' 17th novel and it's well-written. Thomas is a sit-around-the-campfire storyteller, a master at quickie romances, clandestine border crossings, black-market bargaining, bureaucratic back-scratching and nighttime stabbings. He maintains control throughout, offering some zinging insights and some very funny lines.
A devastating moral ambiguity traps all his characters. "Almost legal" situations and "almost beautiful" women surround Ploscaru and Jackson. "I simply thought you would like to know, " Oppenheimer explains dispassionately before murdering a mass murderer. "Too bad," thinks the womans as she makes love to the man she just decided to betray. That's "a pretty good little old Jew boy" comments the GI liberating Europe from racism.
On the lighter side, there's the black marketeer who is "one of the few Germans in 1946 who had to watch their weight," and the ex-Nazi who wonders aloud, "Can you imagine a conquering nation with a sweet called Tootsie Rolls?"
Underneath lies a message as sad and immediate as today's headlines. Everyone-even Oppenheimer's living sister-has a hustle. Everyone wants to get the big bucks out of Uncle Sam. And most of all, everyone has ethics that can be rented.
Thomas has written a solid story whose fault are relatively insignificant. The most troublesome is that he cannot make anyone really care whether the killer is caught. Oppenheimer is, after all, eliminating a lot of very nasty Nazis. Other problems are most avoidable. His descriptions of things such as furniture and skin texture are interesting but unrelated to character or plot development. And he uses cliches inappropriate to a story otherwise so well-crafted. A writer of his experience should not have "materializing waiters," "dimly lit bars," or "thrushing breasts." Such lapses, however, do not keep "The Eighth Dwarf" from measuring up.