Setting a murder mystery amid the horrors of genocide is a potent strategy because it helps to bring the individual act of killing into focus. Reflecting on the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto, or the Holocaust in general, it is all too easy to slip into a numbers game. By making just one of the murders the subject of an entire investigation, the storyteller can remind us of the sanctity of each and every life.
There is a danger. Novels of this nature must be handled deftly, otherwise they risk cheapening their subject. The Warsaw Anagrams achieves this. Richard Zimler's book isn't perfect and occasionally flirts with mawkishness but it is a compelling, poignant portrait of one man's attempt to impose order on the insanity of life in the Third Reich.
The man in question is Erik Cohen, a former psychiatrist and disciple of Freud, now uprooted from his home and living with his niece and grand-nephew in the Warsaw Ghetto. It is 1941 and each day in this "ramshackle Never-Never-Land" brings with it fresh despair.
Nothing, however, can prepare Erik for the day his grand-nephew's body is found dumped in the barbed wire on the ghetto border, with its right leg cut off. While Erik's niece withdraws into illness and depression, "curled around her loneliness", he resolves to find out who is responsible. Enlisting his old school-friend Izzy as a sidekick, Erik "plays detective" in a journey that will take him over the Ghetto border and into the lives of the Poles and Germans who must never know his true identity.
Zimler's novel is well-paced, its language an intriguing mix of sentimental and hard-boiled ("My lie was a key clicking open a lock - the rusted one imprisoning me in myself"). The eponymous "anagrams" refer to the secret language of the Ghetto in which people rearrange words to put the Gestapo off the scent. I
Erik's investigations are given momentum when a second and then a third child's body appears. Eventually, Erik finds his way into the house of a Nazi official, whose step-daughter is suffering from trauma. Urged to talk to her, he is led via his psychoanalytic deductions to a vital clue about the murderer.
Erik resolves to become "a gentler and more effective psychiatrist" - if "I survive the ghetto". Sadly, we know that it's too late for Erik; but there is still time for one final act of justice.