William Goldman’s Marathon Man wasn’t half bad. Unfortunately, the other half was. I picked this book up because I remember enjoying the film version, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier. (Also, I’m a sucker for stories about tracking down Nazis who escaped Europe after the war.) I fell into the trap of expecting the book to be better than the movie because there would be more background and plot. The original novel did have more of both, but it didn’t make for a better tale.
I loathed the first half of Marathon Man. Set in 1973, the book is filled with edgy slang that has not aged well. The protagonist, T.B. Levy, has a motor mouth and is frequently obnoxious rather than amusing. Then there’s the casual racism. With the exception of Levy and one or two other characters, everyone says or thinks horrible things about African Americans and Jews. Instead of making the novel feel “gritty” and realistic, it just feels like paint-by-numbers characterization. It didn’t help that I was waiting for the novel to kick into gear for most of the first half. There’s some action in the prologue and in a side plot that didn’t make sense until Levy gets caught up in the conspiracy at the half-way point.
Once I got to that half-way point, however, my attitude completely changed and I raced through the book. The turning point is when Levy’s brother is murdered. The brother dies in Levy’s arms and Levy is told shortly after that his brother was a courier for Christian Szell, who was Josef Mengele’s (fictional) dental counterpart at Auschwitz. The highlight of the book is the same as the one in the film—which means that this is definitely not a book you want to read before you go to your next appointment with the dentist. The last half of the book is a thrilling, nail-biting race, literally and figuratively.
I would recommend skipping the first half of the book and jumping straight to Part II. Anything that was important from the first half gets referenced in the second and third acts of the book, with the bonus of skipping a lot of obnoxious dialogue and the aforementioned casual racism. Or you could just watch the movie and see Hoffman and Olivier make something interesting out of Marathon Man.