CriminOlly thinks: Sadistic blend of horror and war story that is more interesting than you might expect. 3/5
Title: The Specialist | Author: Jasper Smith | Publisher: Hamlyn | Pages: 127 | Publication date: 1979 | Source: Self-purchased | Content warnings: Yes | Tolerance warning: Yes
The Specialist is a salacious, sadistic horror thriller from the 1970s that was released during the boom for such things in British publishing at that time. It’s sweaty, nasty and revels in violence against women, but it’s also compelling and uses some interesting techniques to tell its story.
Set in Germany during the Second World War, the specialist of the title is a brutal senior member of the Nazi regime who uses extreme and intricate torture techniques to wring secrets out of enemies of the party. The book focuses on his interrogations of two women. One is a young gypsy, and part of a group of nomadic rebels. The other is the highborn aristocratic wife of a German military commander. Over time the two women bond despite their differences and work together to try and escape.
It’s the plight of the women and the reader’s connection with them that makes the book work. They’re convincing characters and their determination to withstand the brutality that is dished out to them is compelling. The reader never really know if they will make it or not, adding to the tension. The fact that the book dwells on scenes of sexual torture is probably inevitable but that doesn’t excuse it. I think a less prurient style might ultimately have served the story better, but probably wouldn’t have sold as many copies.
The action zooms out periodically, with the author throwing in detail about the progress of the war and the macro effects of the actions of the characters. It’s an interesting device and works very well, reminding the reader of the broader canvas that the immediate story is part of.
If you can get past the book’s misogynist obsessions it’s an entertaining and gripping read, even if the ending lacks the impact it might have had. Like many such books and films, it strikes an uneasy balance between its female characters being victims and champions. On the one hand the reader is invited to enjoy their subjugation, on the other to root for them as protagonists. It’s a hard trick to pull off, and perhaps one that shouldn’t be attempted in the first place.
Though ignorant of their crimes, two women face unspeakable horror and degradation at the hands of the sinister SS Colonel Schmerz.
Content Warning: Racism, sexual violence, torture
Tolerance Warning: Misognyny