Ira Levin (1929-2007) wrote only a handful of novels but that handful included some major bestsellers, the best-known being probably Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. The Boys from Brazil, published in 1976, was another notable commercial success for him.
In the 1960s pop culture became obsessed with Nazis. Not just war stories but stories of Nazis as a contemporary threat. It was the era of stories about Nazi plots to regain power and rebuild the Third Reich and make another bid for world nomination. This theme popped in numerous movies and just about every TV spy/action series included at least one episode dealing with neo-Nazis or old Nazis coming up with some nefarious conspiracy. This obsession continued into the 1970s with The Boys from Brazil being one of the last notable manifestations.
Many of these stories are highly entertaining although none are quite able to overcome the inherent silliness of the idea. The chances of a Nazi return to power during the 1960s and 1970s were absolutely zero. It’s perhaps not entirely a coincidence that the more outlandish such stories were the better they worked. The Boys from Brazil is certainly far-fetched although the central premise is undeniably ingenious and cleverly worked out.
I’m not going to spoil this one by revealing any of the major plot twists (although some will become fairly obvious fairly quickly when you read the book).
While Levin’s novels were usually thrillers there’s often a science fictional element as well. This is definitely the case with this novel.
Levin’s novel begins with a meeting of a top-secret cabal of ageing Nazis in Brazil. The meeting has been called to discuss an ambitious plan hatched by the infamous Dr Josef Mengele. The meeting is not quite as secret as they’d hoped. A young American working as an amateur Nazi-hunter has obtained a tape-recording of the meeting. He has passed on some of the information he has acquired to famous Nazi-hunter Yakov Liebermann.
This information is very puzzling indeed. Ninety-four civil servants, all aged around sixty-five, are to be murdered over a period of three years. Liebermann’s first problem is to identify the victims. The murders may well be, indeed probably will be, disguised as accidents. Having identified several of the victims he faces an even bigger problem. There seems to be no logic to the murders and no connection between the victims. It’s not as if these were important men - they were at best middle-level civil servants. Most were retired, or about to retire. None have any Nazi connections and in fact none have any significant political affiliations. It just makes no sense. There must be a common thread but what it might be remains a mystery.
Mengele and the Nazis have a problem as well. They know that Liebermann has this information. They know that the information that Liebermann has is not enough to be dangerous at this stage but it might be just enough to lead him to the answer. The Nazi organisation is in panic mode but Mengele is determined to press on.
Of course Liebermann does eventually start to develop strong suspicions as the nature of the conspiracy but can he stop his old enemy Mengele?
The climax, in an obscure American town, is handled with great skill and the tension is maintained exceptionally well. The ending, replete with moral dilemmas and moral ambiguity, is even more interesting.
Mengele is obviously the chief villain but Levin is smart enough not to make him just a storybook villain. He’s ruthless and utterly lacking in conscience but he does have a cause in which he believes with singleminded intensity. What makes Mengele scary is not the inherent evil of his cause - it’s the single-mindedness, the tunnel vision.
Liebermann has a cause as well which he pursues with just as much single-mindedness. As the story unfolds he begins to realise just how perilous this kind of single-mindedness can be. Whether your cause is good or evil if it’s pursued with fanatical zeal the results can be evil. Liebermann is certainly zealous and some of his allies have definitely crossed the line into fanaticism and it’s a line he may be tempted to cross as well.
Considering the subject matter it’s surprising to find it dealt with in such a complex manner. At times it’s difficult to know how much of the moral ambiguity was intentional on the author’s part and how much may have been unconscious (and may have been merely a side-effect of the author’s willingness to deal with complex and potentially controversial subjects). His other novels, such as The Stepford Wives, demonstrate that Levin was not afraid of allowing the reader to form his own judgments.
Mengele was of course a real Nazi, notorious for his medical experiments in concentration camps. Yakov Liebermann is an idealised version of famed but controversial Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.
The Boys from Brazil is a complex thriller but it’s also highly entertaining. The story itself is ludicrously far-fetched and implausible but that adds to the fun. Recommended.
The 1978 film adaptation is also well worth seeing.