Joel Ross' page-turner of a debut novel, Double Cross Blind, opens in the early months of World War II, when the British intelligence services identified almost all of the Nazi agents operating in the United Kingdom and gave them the option of being executed or becoming double agents. Enough chose the latter that the British were able to deceive the Nazis in ways that significantly enhanced Allied military operations.

Into this world in which nothing is what it seems, Ross inserts several Americans. The protagonist, Tom Wall, has volunteered to serve with the Canadian Army and has been physically and psychologically traumatized by his experiences during the battle for Crete. At the center of that trauma is his belief that his brother, Earl, who is in the American diplomatic service, is a Nazi double agent who caused the death of most of Tom's squadron on Crete. Further complicating the situation is the fact that Tom had been romantically involved with Harriet, Earl's eventual wife, before Earl entered the picture. Add in a couple of eccentric Nazis, the unreal chaos of the Nazi Blitz against London and other British cities, and advance intelligence about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the novel becomes a compellingly disorienting mix for the reader as well as for Tom Wall.

Double Cross Blind does exhibit some of the limitations of a first effort. The characters aren't always quite as interesting as Ross seems to think they are, and the very gradual revelation of what is actually occurring may cause some readers to give up on the story prematurely. Still, Ross (whose editor is former Putnam bigwig Phyllis Grann, who groomed Patricia Cornwell and Robin Cook for bestsellerdom) is very good with detail and with choosing descriptive language that often seems perfectly suited to the person, place or situation and is unusually perceptive without being self-indulgently flamboyant. Even the murkiest events are imbued with a vivid immediacy. And that in itself is more than enough to carry the story. Martin Kich teaches English at Wright State University.

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