Monday, September 17, 2012

The Death of the Fuhrer

The Death of the Fuhrer, by Roland Puccetti
December, 1973 Fawcett Gold Medal

They’ll never save your brain now, Hitler!
-- Grampa Simpson

I read about this forgotten novel in Bill Pronzini’s Son of Gun in Cheek, specifically in the chapter about sex in mystery/thriller fiction. Pronzini gave a certain sex scene in The Death of the Fuhrer the “Alternative Sex Scene To End All Sex Scenes” award, quoting the scene in full. Unfortunately said scene ruined one of the novel’s biggest surprises, but then, as Mike Madonna notes, the cover for one of the UK paperback editions did the same.

The novel was first published in 1972 in the UK, receiving a hardcover edition that same year in the US via St Martin’s Press. A Fawcett paperback followed, and I’ve used that cover here, as it’s the best of them all, mostly because it captures the book’s pulpy tone. For The Death of the Fuhrer is a men’s adventure in all but name; it could easily be another installment of Nick Carter, what with its reborn Nazi plot and generic but heroic protagonist who narrates his own adventure for us.

Our hero is Karl Gisevius, and we meet him in a brief prologue set in 1972 (I guess), in a two-page sequence that is not narrated in third person. Gisevius is old and living in Switzerland; while playing a game of solitary chess he encounters an American tourist, and claims he can tell the young man the “truth” behind the death of Hitler. This then takes us to the story proper, “twenty years ago,” all of it relayed in the first-person narrative of Gisevius, a la Gary Jennings or something.

One issue I had with this novel is that, although it takes place in 1952 or so, I still kept getting confused and thinking it took place in 1972. Everyone acts like the war was years and years ago, even though it was only a few short years before. Puccetti himself I feel got confused here, and it doesn’t help that he has an unsure handling of his tenses. Gisevius’s narrative jumps from past-tense to present, which I guess is supposed to convey the feeling that he’s telling us this story, as people jump tenses in everyday speech, but still it comes off as clumsy.

Also, it must be mentioned that Gisevius is an idiot. Well, maybe only half an idiot. He rushes headlong through this novel, overlooking simple things and lacking even a grain of forethought. He never would’ve gotten into the Boy Scouts, that’s for sure, as the guy’s never prepared. Not only that, but just about every time he sneaks around in this novel (and he sneaks around a lot), he's always sure to bump into things or knock something over, like a regular Mr. Bean. Anyway, Gisevius was a doctor, or something, but now after the war he works as a reporter in Paris.

Gisevius meets an old Russian doctor who claims to have been part of the team that went into Hitler’s Bunker when the Soviets took it over. Again, Puccetti treats the character like he’s ancient and as if he’s recalling events that happened decades before, not five years ago. Anyway the guy has it that Hitler’s corpse lacked a brain, and the brain was missing, and Gisevius convinces his editor that there’s a story here, and next thing you know Gisevius is sneaking into the Soviet section of Berlin.

His entry into the closed-off Bunker is pretty hilarious, as it’s the first indication of our hero’s ineptitude. In a sequence that almost comes out of TNT, Gisevius worms his way down through a claustrophobia-inducing shaft and into the abandoned complex. Only now, after an hour or so of toil, does the guy realize he only brought one flashlight, no batteries, and didn’t even realize that the air down here might not be breathable! More TNT stuff ensues as Gisevius fights for air as he investigates the eerie surroundings.

But his luck is just as powerful as his ineptitude, and Gisevius is able to discover a hidden chamber in here, one which leads him into an apparent operating room. Gisevius knows the signs of brain surgery when he sees them; in fact, thanks to an engraved scalpel he finds in the mess, he even knows who was behind the surgery – Willi Tranger, an old doctoral school chum of Gisevius’s, from the days before the war.

Able to escape the Bunker, Gisevius works his underground contacts and tracks Willi down to a castle in the mountainous regions of Spain – a castle under apparent guard, with soldiers roving behind the gates, machine pistols in hand. Gisevius has not seen Willi since those days in doctoral school; Gisevius, we learn, turned against the Nazi party and ended up working for the OSS during the war, even becoming a US citizen. Willi meanwhile was a true-blue Nazi, joining the party and becoming a high-ranking SS officer.

Gisevius’s plan to get into the castle is another instance of his stupidity: he drives a friggin’ motorcycle right through the gates, in the hopes that they’ll just think he’s a lost tourist and Willi will come upon the scene of the accident and recognize his old pal. That’s pretty much what happens, though of course Gisevius nearly breaks his neck and is almost killed by Willi before he regains consciousness – seems that the Germans who live in this castle don’t want any visitors.

It turns out there’s a minor assembly of former Nazi officers living here, Willi overseeing them. Gisevius is granted a bit of leeway, allowed to stay with them, thanks to his former friendship with Willi plus some doctored papers he has with him, ones which make him appear to be a former SS hotshot himself. Gisevius meets the freaks and is instantly smitten with one of them, a gorgeous blonde named the Baroness, who shortly calls Willi to her chamber for dinner. (This dinner occurs after a sequence where Gisevius, sneaking around the castle in the middle of the night like Bruce Lee on Han’s island, finds himself in the Baroness’s quarters and hides behind the curtains while he watches her parade around her room in the nude.)

The dinner leads to the sex scene Pronzini quoted in full, and it’s a doozy for sure. Long story short, and skip here if you don’t want the surprise ruined, but the Baroness’s body contains Hitler’s brain! Yes, Gisevius discovers this right after the two have had sex. After their simultaneous orgasms the Baroness screams, “Ich ben der Fuhrer!” and Gisevius instantly hops off the bed and puts a nearby sword through her chest. You have to at least give the guy credit for quick reactions.

The novel takes on a Clockwork Orange vibe as Gisevius is caught and Willi implants a mental control device in his brain. Next thing you know, Gisevius is being controlled to do all sorts of things, and with the push of a button Willi can make Gisevius be consumed with rage, sorrow, etc. In the most laughable scene in the novel, Willi even makes Gisevius screw a couch!

Oh, and meanwhile Willi’s preparing to put Hitler’s still-living brain in another body, this time a sturdy young German who has given himself to the cause. The Baroness we learn was also a Hitler supporter, and sacrificied herself in those last hours in the Bunker after there was a problem with the original body that was to hold Hitler’s brain; further, Willi informs us that Hitler was righteously pissed to wake up in a woman’s body, but soon learned to love it, due to the fact that “the brain is bisexual.”

You’d think that Gisevius would be a goner, but in another bizarre sequence he’s able to perform brain surgery on himself. The entire finale continues on this lurid, hyper-weird vibe, as Gisevius staggers about the castle, steals an old Luger, blows away a few blackcoats, and settles the score with Willi. The two fight in the bowels of the place, Gisevius having set off the James Bond villain-esque self-destruct mechanism which will destroy the entire castle. He also makes his escape on an underground railcar in a finale that comes off like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a few decades early.

Puccetti ends the novel on a punchline, taking us back to that forgotten opening bit in 1972, or whenever the hell it takes place. Personally I found the epilogue just as unnecessary as the prologue; we already know the novel is pulp, there’s no need to try to explain it all away. The Death of the Fuhrer was apprently forgotten, despite receiving a few different printings, only revived by Pronzini in his 1986 book. As for Puccetti, he is as forgotten as the book, and as obscure; I can only find one other novel under his name, The Trial of John and Henry Norton, from 1973.


Marty McKee said...

Holy fucking shit, this is one of the greatest books I've ever read. I found the U.S. hardcover in the University of Illinois library. Unfortunately, no dust jacket, so I can't send you a scan. Anyway, this book moves like a shot and features one amazing twist after another. The bookends are silly, true, but the rest is pure pulp trash gold.

Joe Kenney said...

Marty, glad you found the book and are enjoying it. Have you gotten to the part where the protagonist screws a couch? An unforgettable moment in trash fiction for sure.

Marty McKee said...

Dude, I plowed through this amazing book in less than three hours. I only put it down once. Why there is no movie, I'll never know. As soon as I land $40 million in funding, I'll be producing and writing the number 1 box office winner of all time.

S. said...

Great post, I had to order this right away. Got a copy that was borrowed from a Chicago library in '73, library card intact. The cover is a cartoonish drawing of a blond with one arm seductively over one side side of her face. The top of her head is open and, out of it, four faceless SS members are goose-stepping while giving a Roman salute.

Joe Kenney said...

S., glad you were able to get a copy of the book. And thanks for the description of the hardback edition's cover art! I was curious what it looked like. Hope you enjoy the book!