I learned about this book in one of those ways that creates a kind of mythos around it. In 11th grade, we were given a list of acceptable books for out of class reading assignments throughout the school year that included a mix of classics, contemporary “good” books, and apparently also popular books. This was one of the ones I remember being on that list, and it has a curious title. The title refers to the specific courtroom that the second half of the novel takes place in “Queen’s Bench Seven” and that author choice doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you know some of the biographical information tied to the novel.
I didn’t look up the novel at all going in. I knew about Leon Uris in broad terms as a popular Jewish writer who also worked closely with the Israeli government in his novel Exodus, but he’s also written a bunch of other novels about other political situations.
This novel begins with a Polish doctor being arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi collaborator, specifically helping to perform experimental surgeries involving castration, sterilization, and other horrific atrocities. But he’s released from prison and his extradition to Poland is refused when it becomes possible that he is the subject to an anti-Polish nationalism crusade of Communists, now controlling Poland under the USSR. We jump from here to his moving to Borneo and working with the local British authorities to improve public health in the region and be a doctor to people in the area as well. After time, he moves back to England and is knighted. Within time, he finds out that an American novelist has written a long 700 page book called The Holocaust, and in a single reference, Dr. Kelno is specifically named as a Nazi collaborator who performed the atrocities above. The rest of the novel (about 2/3 of it) is the collection of evidence, and the libel trial.
What is good and effective about this novel, and I feel like this is mostly true if and only if you haven’t otherwise read up on Leon Uris and this case, is that I didn’t know what is true and what isn’t true. And I felt very much like a jury member hearing the slow reveal of evidence, considering the various testimony, and making a decision. The novel works very effectively in this way. It also really considers the question of moral culpability in more subtle and nuanced terms than other more clear cut cases. I do not spend any time in thinking about Nazi officials like Eichmann and wonder if they’re “really” guilty or not. But for non-Nazis, who worked with Nazis often under duress or penalty of death, the questions are murkier, and this novel helps to think about them in legal terms at the very least. That this is a libel case and not a criminal case makes it very interesting.