As far as literary value goes, “Voices of the Dead,” a new pulpy revenge thriller by Peter Leonard, doesn’t have much to offer. The prose is terse, telling the reader exactly what’s going on with little room for verbose flourishes or poetic descriptions. The story is absurd, invoking a Nazi as its villain along with a hero that seems more Jason Bourne than the everyday man that he’s supposed to be. Despite this, it’s quite an entertaining read: an exciting novel where the only thing keeping the reader from munching more popcorn is that they need to use their hand to turn another page.
The story takes place in 1971 and focuses on Harry Levin, a Holocaust survivor who was able to put the war behind him until a German diplomat and closet Nazi kills his daughter in a drunk driving accident, getting away with it because he has immunity. Since the government refuses to help, Levin embarks on a journey to enact revenge for his daughter’s death.
There’s not a whole lot of originality here in terms of the story, which combines one part “Lethal Weapon 2” with two parts “Taken,” but Leonard (son of crime writer Elmore Leonard) keeps things moving along fast enough so the reader cares more about the action and characters than the implausibility of why it’s happening.
While Leonard writes in a different world than his father and with a different style, focusing less on criminal low-lives and more on normal people caught in the crossfire of crime, he follows the important rules that have made the senior Leonard’s books such a success: he cuts out the boring parts and focuses on the characters, not allowing anything to come between the reader and the story, rather than trying to impress with stylistic flourishes.
As such, the novel comes across as very cinematic and could likely be turned into a pretty good movie without the need for many adaptive changes.
More than anything else, though, it’s clear Leonard had fun writing the book, which translates into making it fun to read.
Though the novel deals with serious subject matter, specifically the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust, it never gets heavy-handed. While remaining respectful to the history, Leonard uses it as a backdrop to provide motivation for his characters and to give us a villain we can truly despise (though who occasionally comes off as a bit cartoonish).
There are plenty of great literary novels on the bookshelves, but good pulp writers are often undervalued. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to write a book that succeeds solely based on its story and characters, and though not without its flaws, Leonard’s “Voices of the Dead” manages to do so.
It’s a mindless thriller, but it provides the thrills that it promises, wasting little time in its set-up and offering a relentless pace. Readers may have questions by the time they turn the final page, but so long as they don’t take it too seriously, it’s unlikely they’ll have many complaints.