The first review for Breathe of the Flesh
Breathe of the Flesh is a solidly written, intriguing thriller. I read the last 150 pages at a breakneck pace, which shows I was fully engaged in the story and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. The story sweeps from New York City to southern France, from London to Berlin, and from Washington, D.C. to Portland, Maine, as numerous characters fight their own personal battles amidst the war around them. I found myself quickly getting into the story, and every time I thought I knew where the plotline was headed, it took yet another unexpected turn until finally coming to a bold, unconventional conclusion.
There were times, however, when I felt a bit lost due to the sheer number of characters introduced, some of whom made their entrance early on with no explanation as to their relevance and then didn’t reappear till several chapters later (or never reappeared.) By the end of the book, though, it was clear who the characters were or at least how they fit into the overall story.
The protagonist, Thomas Leopard, is an unlikable character, but still I found myself both feeling sorry for him and rooting for him to finally have some success in catching his prey, no matter how bittersweet the victory. His prey, the German spy Der Tiger/Hermann Van Roeple/William Birch, is a serial killer as loathsome as Hannibal Lector; a sociopath whose spy assignments and career ambitions are only a sideline to his real passion for killing teenage girls. He leaves a swath of bloodshed wherever he goes. But Der Tiger’s not the only repulsive character; many are unpleasant; and I’m not just talking about the Nazis. And even most of the otherwise likable characters seemed morally distasteful.
Miriam Roth, the Bureau of Printing and Engraving employee, for instance, is a lonely, desperate woman so full of self-loathing that she’ll throw herself at any man who’s bound to use and abuse her, while at the same time showing abject disdain for the one man who offers kindness. June Anderson Prien, the American actress married to a Nazi General, finds herself in the deplorable position of having to sleep with her husband’s subordinate in order to extract useful information for Allied agents. And MI6 agent Lynn Nevers, one of the most likable characters, finds herself envying women who can have meaningless affairs without emotional consequence after engaging in a disappointing coupling herself.
Which brings me to my only real objection to the novel: it has more sex scenes than a Harlequin bodice-ripper. Towards the end of the story I tired of them; they seemed included only for titillation rather than to advance any plot. Probably what bothered me most was that the majority of the scenes were between people who barely knew each other and/or didn’t care for each other, so a few of the encounters ended more like rapes than consensual lust. These were pure sex scenes, not love scenes. Call me a romantic, call me a prude, but I can tolerate only so much licentiousness. That said, an old-fashioned romantic entanglement between two characters who meet two-thirds of the way in the novel brought me a glimmer of hope for some sort of character redemption. (I was tragically disappointed.)
If this novel were made into a movie, it would easily garner a NC-17 rating, what with the aforementioned dozen-plus sex scenes, and close to a dozen murders--neither of which group includes the two gruesome rape/murders explicitly described (with a couple more discussed after the fact.) This is adults-only fare, so be forewarned.
In the end, Breathe of the Flesh just wasn’t my cup of tea. Chalk it up to my personal taste in fiction, which runs more towards Pride & Prejudice and Lord of the Rings. Stories with likable characters that follow the standard formula: the bad guys die, the good guys win, the hero gets the girl, and they all live happily ever after. If I wanted to be depressed at the end of a book, I’d just re-read 1984.
Bottom line: Is Breathe of the Flesh well-written? Yes. Does it keep you guessing and on the edge of your seat? Yes. Would I read it again? No. Do I recommend it? Not really. But I admit I would probably read a sequel, if Jack Allen chose to write one. I may read his previous novels. His character Josh McGowan in his novels Change Of Heart and An Innocent Among Them sounds more to my liking.
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