Although Mark Twain apparently didn’t coin the phrase “truth is stranger than fiction,” he offered perhaps the best explanation for why it is so. “It is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities,” he wrote. “Truth isn’t.” History is replete with proof; try, for instance, plotting a novel that faithfully replicates the events of Sept. 11 or John F. Kennedy’s assassination and watch it be dismissed as absurd.
This phenomenon takes on special resonance when the vagaries of circumstance are compounded by human idiocy, as is the case with the catalyzing event in Jennet Conant’s “The Great Secret.”
Here’s the setup: Skirting an international ban on the use of chemical weapons, an American merchant ship carrying a top-secret shipment of nitrogen mustard gas shells slips into the port city of Bari mere months after Italy’s surrender to the Allied forces. Despite the ship’s highly explosive cargo, its captain is told to berth in the overcrowded harbor and await his turn in the unloading queue, a wait that extends for five days. And despite Bari being a mere 150 miles from the German front lines, the Allies are so convinced of their air supremacy that they don’t even bother putting up a fighter screen to guard the port; to the contrary, to facilitate round-the-clock unloading operations, authorities have dispensed with the usual blackout rules, so that on the night of Dec. 2, 1943, the place is lit up like a Christmas tree. Oh, and the one telephone linked to air command that might alert fighters that a great squadron of German bombers is bearing down on the harbor? Yeah, for some reason the phone isn’t working that night. In the hands of an accomplished writer like Conant, whose earlier works include the best sellers “Tuxedo Park” and “The Irregulars,” this real-life scenario — and resulting disaster — offers great, if awful, promise.
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But bumping up against the stranger-than-fiction dictum is another that is the bane of nonfiction writers everywhere: Truth often takes disappointing turns. In real life, otherwise fascinating people have a bad habit of dying or retiring or leaving on a business trip just before big stuff happens. In other cases, the discovery or invention for which someone is known is found to not be as groundbreaking as first imagined, or the person turns out to be a bit player in the great drama of the day, not the lead. It seems that an amalgam of these real-life pitfalls confronted Conant in the telling of her tale, and the effect is a discursive and oddly bifurcated book.
At the heart of the story are the actions of Lt. Col. Stewart Alexander, a doctor previously attached to the Chemical Warfare Service of the U.S. Army, who is dispatched to Bari after the devastating German attack. With 17 ships sunk and over 1,000 Allied soldiers and sailors dead or missing, the ghastly consequences of the Bari turkey-shoot are still unfolding when Alexander arrives. In grim detail, Conant describes the suppurating wounds and baffling symptoms that afflict hundreds of the wounded and which eventually kill a good many of them. But this is a remarkable case of the right person showing up at the right time. Having recently conducted laboratory experiments on the effects of mustard gas, Alexander quickly deduces that this chemical cocktail is the mystery killer in Bari.
It is there his troubles start. Unbeknown to Alexander, during their advance into Nazi-held Europe, British and American forces have been secretly stockpiling chemical weapons on the morally dubious rationale that if a disintegrating Third Reich resorts to using such banned weapons, the Allies will be able to retaliate in kind. The mustard gas shells brought into Bari were in service of that mission, but the British authorities overseeing the harbor have been instructed adamantly to deny their existence to everyone, including the persistent American doctor. As Alexander continues to investigate — he is ultimately able to pinpoint the ship that carried the toxic cargo by plotting the radiating circle of deaths it caused — British commanders alter their tune, arguing that if there is poison gas in the harbor, it must have come from the German bombers. Alexander won’t play along. Over British protestations, in his official report he makes clear that nitrogen mustard is responsible for the injuries and deaths he is seeing, and that it came from an American ship.
But there is another aspect of Alexander’s efforts in Bari that drives “The Great Secret.” In his earlier experiments, Alexander noted that nitrogen mustard exposure spurred a dramatic collapse of white blood cells in laboratory mice. Since the proliferation of white blood cells is the main factor in the spread of many cancers, notably leukemia, Alexander theorized that perhaps the compound could be harnessed to combat the disease. His idea was given short shrift at the time but finding precisely the same pattern of collapsed white blood cell counts among the Bari victims, Alexander has the foresight to gather tissue samples from some of the casualties and ship them off to research labs in the United States for further study. The results, Conant tells us, helped spur research into the use of chemical compounds, or chemotherapy, in the war against cancer.
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As intriguing as all this might sound, the telling is hobbled in several fundamental ways. Rather than employ her material to illuminate or support her narrative, Conant has a habit of allowing that material to dictate it. A chief example early on is Alexander’s unpublished autobiography, cited at least 25 times in the first chapter alone. Thus, after a quick and vivid description of the Bari attack, and an economical rendering of the doctor’s early years, readers are given an extended tour of Alexander’s prior wartime assignments and transfers, complete with the names and titles of his various colleagues and commanding officers, joined to his thoughts on everything from his attendance at the January 1943 Casablanca conference (“a thrill”) to his impressions (“lasting”) upon first meeting Dwight D. Eisenhower, when what most readers will want is to get back to the hellscape of Bari.
Unfortunately, this return is marked by an overreliance on a new set of reference materials. Drawing from Alexander’s preliminary reports as he sets about his Bari investigations, Conant tells us countless times that Alexander suspects mustard gas to be the unknown killer long after we have already intuited this. Pulled from other documents is a litany of medical terms that are poorly defined and may leave lay readers at sea. Terms such as “conjunctivital” and “hyperemia” had me reaching for a dictionary, while instinct alone told me “gross edema and vesiculation of the penis” is a condition best avoided.
Of course, much of this profusion of ancillary detail could be excused, even justified, if the life of Stewart Alexander and his pioneering work on cancer were the book’s through-line. It is not. Instead, at war’s end, Alexander turns down an offer to join a cancer research institute in favor of returning to his family medical practice in New Jersey. As a result, the last third of “The Great Secret” is then handed off to a wholly different character, Col. Cornelius “Dusty” Rhoads, the head of the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service and the future director of the Sloan Kettering Institute. So thoroughly does Alexander fall away that, for nearly 100 pages, he merits just a few passing references. Most dispiriting of all, when we do finally hear from Alexander again in the epilogue we discover that his work in Italy was hardly the life-shaping event we might have imagined; for more than 30 years, Conant writes, “he had not given the Bari episode so much as a second thought.”
If startling, this admission raises the possibility that Alexander understood something about his Bari adventure that Conant does not: that despite the extraordinary circumstances in which it occurred, his contribution to the field of cancer research was quite limited. By then we’ve learned that neither the Bari disaster nor the tissue samples Alexander collected pioneered the study of nitrogen mustard in chemotherapy; medical researchers were already experimenting with the compound. In a remarkable turn, Conant also blames “the widespread misapprehension” that the disaster “preceded the first clinical trial” of nitrogen mustard on a badly worded 1946 newspaper article, while noting that this “confusion continues to the present day.” That confusion seems likely to persist given her book’s subtitle: “The Classified World War II Disaster That Launched the War on Cancer.”
In much of her work, Conant has traveled that fascinating and murky landscape where science, medicine and war intersect. While “The Great Secret” also resides on this terrain, readers are apt to find more reward in her previous books.