Author, Book review, Brazil, Corsair, crime/thriller, Fiction, Ira Levin, Publisher, Setting, South America

‘The Boys from Brazil’ by Ira Levin


Fiction – Kindle edition; Corsair; 288 pages; 2011.

Ira Levin’s  The Boys from Brazil is a classic thriller first published in 1976. Some of you may better know it as a film, starring Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, which was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1978. I have not seen the film, and I didn’t really know anything of the book’s plot, other than it was about Nazis. I picked it up for 99 pence earlier this year and thought I would save it for a time when I was looking for something fast-paced and easy to read — such as a long-haul flight.

Mysterious murder plot hatched by fugitive Nazis

The story, which opens in September 1974, is based around a mysterious plot hatched by a group of Nazi war criminals now hiding out in South America. The head Nazi is none other than Dr Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”, who carried out horrible experiments on inmates at Auschwitz during the Second World War. In a secret meeting, held in a Japanese restaurant in Sao Paulo, Brazil, he tells the gathering:

‘It’s the most important operation the Organization has ever undertaken, and “important” is a thousand times too weak a word to describe it. The hope and the destiny of the Aryan race lie in the balance. No exaggeration here, my friends; literal truth: the destiny of the Aryan folk – to hold sway over the Slays and the Semites, the Black and the Yellow – will be fulfilled if the operation succeeds, will not be fulfilled if the operation fails. So “important” isn’t a strong enough word, is it? “Holy”, maybe? Yes, that’s closer. It’s a holy operation you’re taking part in.’

The operation involves murdering civil servants living around the world, on or around their 65th birthdays.

‘Ninety-four men have to die on or near certain dates in the next two and a half years,’ he said, reading. ‘Sixteen of them are in West Germany, fourteen in Sweden, thirteen in England, twelve in the United States, ten in Norway, nine in Austria, eight in Holland and six each in Denmark and Canada. Total, ninety-four. The first is to die on or near October sixteenth; the last, on or near the twenty-third of April, 1977.’

The meeting is secretly taped by a young American journalist, who tips off the Vienna-based “Nazi hunter” Yakov Liebermann. While the pair are on the telephone discussing the matter, the journalist is killed, setting into motion a chain of events which span the globe.

To say much more is impossible without giving away crucial plot spoilers. But what I can say is this: part of the fun in reading this book is trying to figure out why these seemingly unimportant men are to be killed. Are they connected to the Nazi Party in some way? Or have they wronged Mengele in the past? Will Liebermann figure it out before he, too, is murdered by these assassins?

Genre-bending novel

The Boys from Brazil isn’t your average thriller. It has elements of science fiction in it and because it is based on real characters — including Simon Wiesenthal, whom Yakov Liebermann is supposed to represent —  it also feels rooted in “truth”. And the reason for the murder plot, when it is revealed, is chilling to the core.

However, some elements of the story, such as genetic engineering, are slightly outdated now, but I imagine that in the mid-1970s this book must have felt not only fresh and exciting but within the realm of possibility — so many of those Nazi’s were on the run and Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, had devoted his life to tracking them down and bringing them to justice.

I should also point out that Levin’s prose style is overly simplistic to the point of being dull. That’s not to say he isn’t a cracking storyteller — he is — but to keep the momentum and suspense going in this fast-paced plot, Levin doesn’t worry too much about descriptions or scene setting; he just wants to get to the point. Some people will appreciate this style, others will hate it. I didn’t mind it, although his tendency to hyphenate words — wedding-ringed, wet-darkened shoulders and so on — grated on me after awhile.

All in all, I enjoyed this book — it kept me thoroughly entertained on a flight between Rio de Janeiro and Paris — and you can’t ask much more than that.

8 thoughts on “‘The Boys from Brazil’ by Ira Levin”

  1. I liked this book though I read it so long ago I can just about remember the plot but not anything like the writing style! I have enjoyed most of Ira Levin’s books, though.


  2. Even though the Nazis who fled to South America liked being free, they still felt that they were among inferiors.
    Therefore, they would kill anyone who would interrupt their freedom, even though their lives were not what they thought that they deserved.


  3. I have a vague recollection of reading Rosemary’s Baby as a teenager, but haven’t read anything else by him. I think he probably writes novels about ideas — and it is the idea that is key to the story, not so much the execution of it, if that makes sense.


  4. Yes, it’s quite clear from this book, that Mengele and his cronies were intent on starting the Fourth Reich, and anyone who got in their way was to be eliminated.


  5. The name is familiar to me from the film, I think, though I never saw it.
    I read something by Ira Levin a while ago (was it The Stepford Files?) and felt the same way about the style: it felt like a book for reluctant adolescent readers who just want a story they can read quickly and easily and never mind the fancy flourishes.


  6. Ah, it would have been the Stepford Wives, which I had forgotten all about until you mentioned it. I read it as a teenager and loved it! But yes, I think you’re right, these are stories that are very much about the storytelling and nothing else.


  7. I’ve long believed that average to B+ books make the best movies. I’ve not read this one, but the movie is actually pretty good. Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier go head to head in a couple of very good scenes. I thought the genetic engineering aspects of it still worked pretty well in the movie.


  8. I was hesitant to say it in my review, but the book does have the feel of a screenplay — so I do think you’re right. Those books that are heavy on plot and storytelling do lend themselves to being movies. I’d actually quite like to see this one — yu don’t get much bigger in actor terms than Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier — so must see if I can locate it online.


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