Crimes of War

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Drawing from his experience working with the Canadian War Crimes Unit, author Peter Hogg uses two first-person narratives to describe the unsuccessful efforts of Dennis Connor, who is employed by the Canadian Special Prosecutions Unit, to bring Friedrich Reile, a World War II criminal, to trial. Hogg begins with Reile’s response to two photographs that have been mailed anonymously to him. The photos trigger long-suppressed memories of his activities on the Russian front, and on November 14, 1994, he begins his “confession” in a diary. Maintaining that he only followed orders, he sees himself as the “scapegoat for the Beast of collective guilt” and justifies his acts as the result of Russian atrocities committed against his people and community. Reile not only describes how the “kommandos” were transformed from men to killing machines, but goes on to discuss his current life in Toronto in terms that suggest he is a “normal” Canadian citizen.

Connor, his pursuer, is working for an agency that never does succeed in convicting a war criminal, mostly because witnesses and criminals alike are dying or are unable to testify convincingly. In fact, the agency is being terminated, and Connor, the last employee, is charged with closing all the files. He, however, has become obsessed with Reile, whom he regards as a monster. The reader’s sympathies would seem to be with Connor, but he reveals himself to be a cynical bureaucrat unwilling to commit (or, to use his word, “connect”) to family, friends, or lovers. Although he knows he cannot convict Reile, Connor can “cause him unrest;” and his final pathetic attempt at justice consists of “egging” Reile’s house and informing him that he has escaped prosecution. The two first-person accounts force readers to probe beneath the convenient labels of detective/hero and criminal and see the characters as real people.