In 1940 two German-speaking teenagers who have escaped the Nazis and are now living in England are parachuted into Germany to retrieve a young girl who is believed to be an important bargaining piece in the war between the powers. They take her out of the convent where she is staying but are forced off their planned route and are pursued closely by Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s ruthless head of security, and his men. While they travel they discuss Angelika’s fate and agree that she should not be handed over to the British as a mere pawn in the game of war.
Otto and Leni (the names by which they go throughout the book until the very last page) are selected by the British as being German-speaking active teenagers with some initiative. The relationship between Otto and Leni is credible and straightforward. Thrown together unexpectedly with no knowledge of each other’s background, they form a prickly alliance at first. Each leads the way on one occasion or another and they bicker over mistakes and misjudgements. As things progress there is something of an attraction between the two teenagers, only natural when they’re brought together in close circumstances and in tense situations. Nothing really comes of it except, briefly, as Otto helps Leni and Angelika out of the river after an impromptu bathe in their underwear. It’s all very innocent, but both teenagers are obviously affected by the moment. As the story closes they exchange names and hold hands. Sweet, but not precocious.
There is danger and incident enough to satisfy thrill-seeking readers: the entire second half of the book is really one long chase scene, alternating between the children, their pursuers and, later, the British commander who is waiting at their rendezvous. On one occasion Otto has to silence a woman who has seen through their cover story and prepares to shoot her but is relieved when she faints in shock. When he later kills a German soldier with a pitchfork he is violently sick. Otto is interrogated brutally if briefly by Heydrich himself. The girls come back to find him but not before he has had his hand nailed to the table by some sort of ice-knife. In the same episode, Leni blows up Heydrich’s car and steals a motorcycle to get away. This actually smacks a little too much of Alex Rider: for all her courage, it is not clear that the teenage girl would have had the ruthlessness or the skill to carry this out.
The Catholic Church plays a somewhat curious part in the story. Nazi attitudes towards the Catholic church ranged from mistrust at best to persecution and deportation to the concentration camps. It seems surprising that the young girl who is assumed to be Hitler’s daughter would be given to a convent of nuns to look after. The sisters are hardly portrayed sympathetically: the 9-year-old Angelika, who, oddly, wears novices robes dislikes being in the convent, and no wonder since the nuns who are there seem only to be interested in impressing on her how special she is and berating her for small faults. However unsympathetic their characters may be, their Mother Superior does not deserve the unpleasant fate she suffers at the hands of Heydrich.
A side-story involves Herr Straniak, a real character employed by the Nazis for his supernatural abilities, who uses a pendulum to locate the children on a map from many miles away. His powers do not seem so useful later, but when he takes Heydrich’s hand in greeting he is given a brief glimpse of that man’s final hours in Prague two years later.
The story’s most emphasised and positive note is a respect for human life and the dignity of being a person. As the children travel, the teenagers discuss without her hearing what they think will happen to Angelika when they all reach their rendezvous in Switzerland. Following their orders they have lied to her, saying that her parents will be there to meet her. But even though they view this as an unfortunate necessity they are unwilling to allow her to be turned into a bargaining chip. Otto reveals to Leni that Admiral McPherson had given him a cyanide capsule to ensure that Angelika die rather than fall back into German hands. Understanding that she is a human being with her own rights, he throws this away in the forest and, while they do not explain the whole picture to Angelika, they are determined to find some way out for her. When the do finally meet McPherson, their commander claims that the end justifies the means to which Otto responds that the little girl “saved my life, not once but twice” and was not “just the daughter of someone, a tool to be used by you and the Nazis”, but rather “a good person, a brave person”. After a few moments of bluster, McPherson humbly accepts that: “Every innocent life is sacred. And the minute you forget that, you’re on the slippery slope to hell.” Words which come across as the more profound for being at the end of a story which has not offered too much depth.
The story showcases bravery and friendship between three young people who have only been brought together by a military plan but who see each other as real people. There is danger and excitement and tragedy. And humility, as different characters recognise their own weaknesses.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. His entire review can be found at goodtoread.org.