The similarities and differences between legality and morality have always been subjective, changing with times, places, and situations. What is legal may not be moral always, and vice versa and that forms the core of The Last Nazi. As a journalist turned writer, Andrew Turpin invites us to ponder on this while introducing us to the world of Joe Johnson, an ex-CIA, ex-OSI operative who is now a private investigator, albeit one with contacts in useful places thanks to his career path.
The book opens in 1944, with twins Daniel and Jacob Kudrow – Polish Jews who are inmates of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp – making their escape from a transport train. Along with a group of other prisoners, they have been put to work building a series of tunnels that will be used to hide artworks and other stolen artifacts, but the task is cut short when the shoddily constructed tunnels collapse before anything more than a few crates can be placed there. In the ensuing confusion, the guard fails to tie their hands properly, allowing them to jump from the train. Helped by the resistance, they eventually arrive in England, carrying with them the knowledge of what the crates contain.
Jump to 2011; it is election year in the USA, and Daniel’s son David is a forerunner for the Republican ticket. Joe is invited to one of his fund-raisers by Nathaniel, David’s brother, as is Fiona, an investigative reporter he has worked with in the past. At the meeting, Nathaniel hints to both that the funding for his brother’s campaign is not exactly kosher, a point he reiterates to Fiona when he meets her again later in the day. He tells her to investigate the source of this father’s and uncle’s wealth, indicating its dark origins. As Fiona deliberates whether to follow the trail, Nathaniel is murdered in his hotel room by an unknown assailant.
Any lingering doubts about Nathaniel’s claims she might have had are brushed away by his death, and Fiona decides to pursue the story. Her editor, however, wants her to cover other news and accedes to her demand of hiring a freelancer to investigate instead of her. She reaches out to Joe; this kind of investigation is right up his alley, as the earlier story they worked on was in a similar vein, exposing a Nazi being hidden by a prominent politician. Joe’s CIA and OSI contacts had been invaluable in the hunt, and the exposé had given Fiona her big break.
For Joe, there is a personal motive in joining the OSI and hunting Nazis; his mother was Jewish, captured by the Germans, and incarcerated at Gross-Rosen, where she suffered at the hands of SS Lieutenant Erich Brenner, the second-in-command at the camp. In her memoirs, she continually insisted on the perpetrators being brought to justice, which became his driving force. He agrees to take the case for Fiona, and through the help of his friends in the CIA, he finds out that the Kudrow brothers’ jewelry business mostly sells to an Argentinian intermediate named SolGold, owned by a José Guzmann. The sales, though regular, show inconsistencies in the amounts over the years.
The name Guzmann also rings a bell for him. Going through his OSI case files to find any references to him, he comes across his case to apprehend the commandant of Dachau. The commandant, living under a false name in America, had fled to Argentina when discovered and was seen meeting Guzmann several times. Joe had intended to investigate it further, but urgent family matters had him take a leave of a few weeks, and by the time he got back, the case had been taken over by the CIA and he had been asked to hand over all the official files.
As Joe starts his investigation, Ignacio Guzmann, José’s son, is meeting his father in Buenos Aires. Ignacio is ex-military and has joined his father’s gold business but is worried by the losses they have been incurring. Some discrete digging on his part reveals José has been buying gold from the Kudrow brothers for years now at a zero-sum cost, as well as the reason behind this. Ignacio chooses to take matters into his own hands instead of confronting José and dispatches a couple of his men to England, where they are to observe Jacob until he arrives.
At the same time, Joe’s old boss in the CIA comes to know of his search for Guzmann. Aware of Guzmann’s true identity, he has been jointly running him as a source of information on Soviet movements along with the Mossad. A call with the Mossad head has them decide to inform Guzmann of Joe and to instruct him not to take any action against him as it will be handled by the professionals. The same call is accidentally overheard by the boss’s secretary, who knows Joe and has a soft spot for him; she informs his friends who immediately let him know the development.
Joe, en route to England, receives the message and decides to take extra precautions; he contacts an old friend from SIS, Jayne Robinson, who agrees to help him with a cover identity. Unknown to Joe, Ignacio is also on his way to England. Guzmann has told him of the investigator, asking him to take care of him. Ignacio, who plans to go there anyway, agrees, thinking of killing two birds with one stone; he cannot afford to have his machinations derailed by an unknown variable at this point. He arrives to find that his men have disregarded his orders to only observe and have complicated matters by kidnapping one of Jacob’s employees and torturing him for information.
Joe reaches London to find his hotel location, booked under his own name, compromised; an anonymous note warning him to abandon the case and go back is waiting for him even as he checks in. He meets up with Jayne, who gives him his cover identity and invites him to bunk down in her spare room. Getting out of the hotel, Joe manages to shake off one of Ignacio’s men following him, but not before he has seen where he parks his rental car. Ignacio decides not to waste any more time with threats and orders his men to plant a bomb in the car, an attempt that Joe narrowly escapes. Ignacio then himself interrogates Jacob’s employee but doesn’t get any more information than what his men got.
Joe meanwhile has to start from scratch, as there is no Jacob Kudrow on any database after the 1970s. Trawling the areas frequented by the remaining Polish Jews in London, he meets an old man who gives him Jacob’s last known location, a jewelry processing unit next to a car spare parts seller named Leopold. Joe reaches there to try and pick up the trail again and strikes gold; he sees Jacob stepping out of the unit with his twin. The unit is still there, he has merely changed his name to Jack Kew to fit into British society. Joe enters Leopold’s shop with a story and gets the opportunity for unsupervised exploration when the man has an emergency he must attend. Finding a connecting door between the car parts shop and Jacob’s unit, he uses it to plant listening devices in the latter’s office and leaves undetected, but not before noticing a large concealed wall safe.
Pondering over how to get into the safe, he gets the answer from Fiona who has come to London as well; a safecracker she knows from an earlier story she had worked on. With this man’s help, Joe retrieves Jacob’s diary, mentioned by Nathaniel as containing clues to the origins of the family wealth. Their quiet exit is interrupted by Ignacio and his men entering Leopold’s shop with the kidnapped employee, who they tie up and shoot dead as a message to the Kudrows. Slipping out unnoticed after the killers have gone, the listening devices planted by Joe keep him appraised of the events unfolding with the Kudrows, from the arrival of the police to the discovery that the diary is missing.
Joe reads the diary, which mostly consists of Jacob’s experiences in the Gross-Rosen camp and their subsequent escape. It also mentions the contents of the crates – gold that has been looted from the inmates of concentration camps and melted down into ingots by the Nazis, that they have been removing a few at a time from the collapsed tunnels. An important piece of the puzzle still eludes him – why is Guzmann buying the gold at a loss? At the same time, Ignacio strikes his next blow, kidnapping Jacob’s grandson. The grandson knows the entire story and has scanned copies of the Kudrow brothers’ map of the tunnels stored on his cloud drive as a backup, which he reveals to Ignacio under torture. Armed with this, he decides to travel to Poland to gather all the remaining crates for himself and leaves a man behind to guard the captive.
Overhearing Jacob’s conversation about his grandson getting kidnapped, Joe shows up at the shop proposing a trade. He returns Jacob’s diary as a show of faith and offers to rescue his grandson in return for learning the entire story, which Jacob agrees to. Tracking him through his phone, Joe and Fiona arrive at the place the grandson is trapped in and free him after a vicious fight with his captor. On the way back, they learn that Jacob has suffered a heart attack, and head directly to the hospital. There, Daniel gives Joe the answer to his question – José Guzmann is Erich Brenner, the SS Lieutenant from Gross-Rosen. He escaped to Argentina at the end of the war and was in hiding until the Kudrow brothers accidentally uncovered his identity during a convention of gold dealers.
Rather than blowing the whistle on him, they decided to exact their own brand of revenge. They blackmailed him into buying the same gold he hid in the tunnels at zero-sum costs and informed both the CIA and Mossad of the deal. The CIA decided to use him as a source of information on Soviet spies with Joe’s old boss becoming Guzmann’s case handler, and the Mossad benefitted monetarily from the arrangement, as a large percentage of the money the Kudrows earned was donated by them to the Israeli agency’s Black Ops missions. Now though, it is all falling apart because of Nathaniel speaking to Fiona and Ignacio getting involved.
Joe gets the original map from Jacob’s office, and he and Fiona head to Poland to intercept Ignacio. While on the way, Ignacio messages Joe, warning him to stay away from both him and his father who he will deal with in his own way. He also shares scans of Guzmann’s old SS documents with Joe, further corroborating the truth of his identity, but it only serves to intensify his need to bring the last Nazi to justice. They arrive at the location of the tunnels on the heels of Ignacio and his henchman, but before they can follow, the henchman triggers a tripwire, causing a cave-in that kills him and blocks the path.
Ignacio manages to get out with one crate, but it is too heavy for him to carry by himself and he is forced to abandon it to make his escape. Deducing that his next step will be to head home and confront his father, Joe and Fiona reach the airport, but the fastest route will still put them a few hours behind the Argentine. Joe messages Jayne, asking her for help since she had been stationed in Buenos Aires a few years before and has contacts there; she agrees to reach and conduct surveillance until they arrive. As this unfolds, Guzmann, with the uncanny survival instincts that have helped him stay alive this long, contacts the CIA and procures a fake passport and passage out of Argentina.
Before he can get away though, Ignacio arrives and corners him. He bundles his father into his car and drives off, watched by Jayne. When Joe and Fiona meet her, they follow Ignacio to a small, lawless border town thanks to the tracking device placed on the car earlier by Jayne. The device leads them to a dilapidated warehouse of sorts on the outskirts of the town. Leaving Jayne as a lookout, they enter the warehouse and step into the trap laid by Ignacio; he has discovered the tracking device and with Guzmann tied to a chair in the center of the room, is waiting for them with one of his armed thugs.
Joe tries to talk Ignacio out of killing his father, but he is out to get his own form of justice. He narrates his account of a violent childhood, filled with beatings and a fear of his father, his joining the army to escape him, and finally his discovery of Guzmann’s deal with the Kudrows. As the final argument, he shows Joe the rest of the warehouse; it has been converted to a workshop where emaciated young women are at work making knockoffs of popular brands with the gold purchased while supervisors with whips oversee the process. Guzmann, to offset the losses incurred, has recreated a concentration camp complete with slave labour and it makes Joe even more determined to bring the old man to trial. As Ignacio brings Joe back to where Fiona and his father are and prepares to kill them all, Jayne drives her car straight through one of the flimsy walls, knocking him off his feet.
In the ensuing confusion, Ignacio escapes yet again, but Guzmann remains tied up. With the help of Fiona and Jayne, Joe brings him back to Buenos Aires and from there he is extradited to Germany to face trial. Both the CIA and Mossad, to distance themselves from the ensuing publicity, do nothing once Guzmann is captured, letting the law take its course. The book ends with David dropping out of the Presidential nomination race due to Fiona’s exposé, a manhunt underway for Ignacio, and the elder Kudrows agreeing to be part of Guzmann’s trial.
With the intention of creating a Joe Johnson series, Turpin takes care to develop the character. His backstory, the hints of his past actions with the CIA and the OSI, his relationship with the two primary female players, his motivation and drive all lay the foundation for future stories. He also builds up the Kudrow brothers and the Guzmanns meticulously, giving them the time and space to come into their own while making you sympathize and abhor them in turn. In contrast, the other characters like Fiona, Jayne, and Joe’s old boss are blurrily sketched, despite being important to the plot.
The Last Nazi operates on two levels simultaneously. On the surface, it is a decently paced thriller, with well-researched plotlines and historical accuracies that makes for a fun, light read. Underneath that, it throws up some deep questions. What could really count as repentance or restitution for what the Jews underwent in the concentration camps? When does the hunt for the perpetrators really stop? With most of the Nazi criminals either dead or of advanced age, does a trial after all these years serve a purpose? Was it morally right for the USA and the Soviets to use Nazis against each other during the Cold War, granting them amnesty for their crimes?
Turpin doesn’t give you answers or sermonize, but lets you draw your own conclusions. Guzmann isn’t a good person, but neither are the Kudrows for what they do post-war, and that forms the crux of the struggle. The only indication of his inclination comes at the very beginning when he quotes Eli Rosenbaum, erstwhile director of the OSI: “The passage of time has in no way lessened the gravity of the crimes, and the perpetrators ought not to be rewarded for their success in evading detection or concealing their misdeeds. And perhaps most important of all, justice must be sought in order to send an unmistakable message of deterrence to would-be perpetrators, namely: if you dare to commit atrocities, you will be pursued, however far you run and however long it takes to apprehend you.”