Author Steven Pressfield has forged a considerable reputation as a historical novelist, focusing on the more ancient civilizations. His 1998 novel Gates of Fire, about the 300 Spartans who defended Thermopylae against an overwhelming number of Xerxes' troops in 480 B.C., helped inspire a whole new wave of interest in that heroic encounter. Now he turns his sights on the desert war of World War II and the formidable talents of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the so-called "Desert Fox."Told as a written memoir from a young British lieutenant, R. Lawrence Chapman (aka Chap), Killing Rommel chronicles the deadly mission of a commando unit, the Long Range Desert Group, as it tries to outmaneuver Rommel and assassinate him. It's a daring, even reckless endeavor that takes a special group of men.
Pressfield has never been shy about sharing his vast knowledge of ancient weaponry and now, moving to the era of World War II, he hasn't lost a step or a spear. And yet he's smart enough not to allow didactics to get in the way of good drama. While the weapons have changed greatly, the men in the trenches haven't, and few writers handle the intense camaraderie of fighting men better than Pressfield. The desert itself emerges as a character, as in this passage where Chap muses on its timelessness and his relationship to it. "I am an ordinary Englishman, barely out of my university years. Yet here I sit, in the vastness of the African night, surrounded by mates who could have stepped from Caesar's legions or Alexander's phalanx."As you ride in the tanks with the men toward the conclusion of the novel, you come to realize that what happens to Rommel doesn't really matter. The German commander is respected on both sides for his gentlemanly behavior toward troops. He refuses to execute POWS or Jews, earning the wrath of Hitler and sealing his own fate. No, it's what happens to the men we've come to know through Pressfield's masterly characterizations that has become so vital.
Michael Lee is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.