Any novel that invokes World War II automatically gets my attention. Obsessed, by Ted Dekker, promises a thriller draped around dark secrets, evil intent, prized possessions, and an obsession with the potential to spiral lives out of control. Throw in WWII and a Big Bad bad guy who can deliver, and you’re golden for a rip-roaring story, right?
Well, maybe not.
Obsessed combines three main storylines. In the “present day” 1970s, Stephen Friedman is a Los Angeles realtor striving for the American Dream. Upon learning that his mother — with whom he had been separated at childbirth during the Holocaust – had died, leaving him cryptic clues about his past and the vaunted and valuable Stones of David – Friedman embarks on an increasingly reckless adventure to find his inheritance and some connection with his Jewish roots.
Meanwhile, a horrific tale is unfurled concerning several women in a Nazi labor camp in Poland near the end of the Second World War. While it’s not a concentration camp, the conditions are desperate and made all the worse by the sadistic German commandant, Gerhard Braun. Braun’s son, Roth – who, by way of comparison, ends up making his pops look like a cuddly Colonel Klink – emerges as Friedman’s chief adversary.
While the set-up of the story is clever and interesting, its execution gets bogged down more often than not. The concepts of obsession and passion are studied at length throughout the novel. While lacing a thriller with thematic elements and philosophy is helpful and can even be glorious when applied artfully, the delivery is spoon-fed and over-the-top in this novel. I was reminded of Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing, in which he talks about writing a first draft of a manuscript with nothing in mind but the story. Then, during revisions, themes that are naturally embedded in the tale may be coaxed and eased into prominence. With Obsessed, it seems that the theme may have come before the story.
If we can assume that Mr. Dekker wished to impart some kind of theme, moral, or message through his writing, it would seem to be of a spiritual or religious nature. I was deep into the story before I realized that the novel might be attempting to offer more than mystery and thrills. Leafing through the book jacket and reviews of other Dekker novels presented on the first several pages of the hardcover edition, I noticed several references to “religious fiction” and “Christian fiction.” While I wasn’t overtly aware of this kind of storytelling in Obsessed, such as with the Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, I did feel as though I was being offered something I did not necessarily ask for.
Further, Friedman and the “rabbi” (an older man who took in Friedman after he emigrated to the U.S.) are both Jews and survivors of Holocaust-era Europe. During a brief passage of the book, we’re told that the rabbi, who isn’t really a rabbi but is given that title affectionately by Friedman, had actually converted from Judaism to some form of Christianity and worships at a Unitarian church. Friedman has leanings in this direction as well. While it’s not inconceivable that two Holocaust survivors might leave Judaism for Christianity, it is – and I say this with some knowledge of history and a level of Judaic education – highly unlikely and therefore detracts again from the story and leads one to consider what other persuasive messaging is being offered.
Ted Dekker is an able writer and successfully builds a number of scenes into a frenzy of action and suspense. As the story progresses, however, the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit very elegantly into a whole. For example, Roth Braun and his father have developed a pseudo-religion, it seems, out of the ashes of National Socialism. The chief end is to secretly provide selected Jews with hope and even happiness, and then to snatch it away in a way that causes as much misery and suffering and pain as possible. The theory goes that when the victim dies (at the hand of the Brauns, of course) power is transferred to the murderer. While this concept may have fit nicely into a standard psychotic serial killer story, it doesn’t gel very well within the confines of a novel based upon real events of the Second World War.
I ended up with odd and conflicted thoughts about Obsessed. I liked it in parts but was left feeling uneasy in the end. The pages zoomed by but I’m not really sure what I learned in the process.