David Benioff can hardly be classified as an underdog. The 2002 film adaptation of his first novel, ‘The 25th Hour,’ was directed by Spike Lee and starred Edward Norton. His screenwriting credits include ‘Troy,’ ‘The Kite Runner,’ and the forthcoming ‘X-Men’ prequel. And after ‘People’ named him one of America’s most eligible bachelors, Benioff married actress Amanda Peet. The theory of karmic justice, therefore, says that Benioff’s second novel, in bookstores now, must be mediocre at best to counterbalance this outrageous fortune.
Sorry, karma-believers. ‘City of Thieves‘ is flat-out great. The novel is ostensibly based on the WWII experiences of Benioff’s grandfather, a Russian immigrant and former New York insurance man now retired in Florida. In the winter of 1942, as Benioff tells it (or fabricates – half the charm is not knowing), the 17-year-old Lev Beniov is arrested in Leningrad for stealing a sip of cognac from a Nazi paratrooper’s flask. After being forced into partnership with Kolya, a smooth-talking deserter from the Russian army, Lev is offered a lunatic plea deal: Find a dozen fresh eggs for a colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake; or else. In Nazi-sieged Leningrad, where the starved populace has taken to eating the glue from book bindings, this is mission impossible. Their only hope: Sneak behind enemy lines to snare the eggs from the Germans. Mission impossible, meet mission inconceivable.
Benioff’s screenwriting chops are in full force here – the plot careens along with cinematic verve – but that’s expected. The surprise is Benioff’s understated wisdom and tenderness. “I just want to make sure I get everything right,” Benioff tells his grandfather in the prologue, as he teases wartime stories from the old man. “You won’t,” his grandfather reassures him. But it’s worth reading Benioff’s valiant attempt.