The Boys from Brazil is the fourth Ira Levin novel I’ve read in the last few years and it is yet another gem of a book. With his tense, taut plots that often incorporate elements of the supernatural, or in this case, science fiction, many of his books were successfully adapted for the screen. The Boys from Brazil was no exception, released in 1978 and starring Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier. Part of his success I think, is that his books often feel like high-concept movie pitches but he takes that initial idea and goes much deeper.
I haven’t seen the film and had little knowledge of the plot of the book, which is the best way to approach it as the less you know the better the reading experience will be.
Published in 1976, the book opens, like all great thrillers, in the midst of a sinister plot. At a restaurant in South America, eight ex-SS officers meet with a charismatic white-suited man. They are tasked with killing 94 men across the world on specific dates over the next three years, with the precise order that each death looks like an accident and involves no other family member. The targets seem to have little in common, other than all being around the age of 65 and civil servants.
The authorities in no country must suspect that an operation is underway. It shouldn’t be difficult for you. Bear in mind that these are sixty-five year old men: their eyes are failing; they have slow reflexes, diminished strength. They’re likely to drive poorly and cross streets carelessly, to suffer falls, to be knifed and robbed by hoodlums. There are dozens of ways in which such men can be killed without attracting high-level attention…I trust you to find them.
What makes this plot even more sinister, is that the white-suited man is actually Dr Josef Mengele, the German SS officer and physician who earned the epithet ‘Angel of Death’ courtesy of his gruesome medical experiments in Auschwitz and his fascination with times. Only Mengele and a few associates know the reason for this operation, but he is keen to stress that ‘the hope and the destiny of the Aryan race lie in the balance’.
What Mengele and his cohorts don’t know, is that an aspiring young journalist has secretly recorded their meeting, and he passes tantalising hints of the plot on to Yakov Liebermann, an elderly Jewish Nazi-hunter, who senses that this is something very big and sets out to foil the plot. But with little detail of who is to be murdered and no knowledge of what the end goal of the killings is, can he succeed?
The Boys from Brazil is, essentially, a cat and mouse chase with two very tenacious protagonists. While the pair are clearly cast and good guy and bad guy, Levin’s Liebermann is as confused as the reader, using brainpower, hard work and patience to bring about a tense showdown with his quarry. As always, Levin’s writing is suspenseful and taut, with the air of a screenplay. Everything is visual and there is nothing out of place. Every word drives the plot, which is as tightly and expertly structured as I have come to expect from his work.
In Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, Levin used dark-fantasy and horror tropes to explore societal themes such as women’s liberation and the role of the patriarchy. He does a similar thing here, but utilises science-fiction elements to explore basic questions of good and evil. Should evil be defeated by carrying out more evil, or is there a line that should never be crossed?
While The Boys from Brazil has definitely dated in some respects, it still holds a great deal of power and in fact, given the scientific advances that have occurred since the 1970s – the plot is even less far-fetched than it would have been on publication. Chuck Palahniuk has said that Levin’s novels are “a smart, updated version of the kind of folksy legends that cultures have always used” and that is incredibly evident here. The narrative benefits from being based on real people, rooting the rather fantastical elements of the plot in a recognisable reality.
The Boys from Brazil is a bravura thriller, full of magnificently taut writing, a palpable sense of suspense and a structure and plotting that builds to a satisfying climax. Levin is an absolute master of genre, always exploiting the commercial aspects of his novels, but never short-changing his readers. He taps into that primal fear that we can never fully know who someone else is and few writers depicts the banality of evil better.
Someday, he thought, I would like to meet a monster who looks like a monster.
I read The Boys from Brazil for Karen and Simon’s 1976 Club which runs all week.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 346
NUMBER REMAINING: 400
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!