The Detonators

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Published by: Little, Brown and Company; First Edition editions
Release Date: 07/12/2006
Pages: 352
ISBN13: 978-0316734967


In 1916, while the Allied and Central forces waged war in Europe, Americans watched from afar, unthreatened by the danger overseas. That all changed on a warm summer evening in late July, when a spit of land in New York Harbor called Black Tom Island exploded, pelting the Statue of Liberty with shrapnel, devastating much of lower Manhattan, and casting a fiery orange glow over New York City.

The attack, so massive that people as far away as Maryland felt the ground shake, had been shockingly easy. America was riddled with networks of German saboteurs, hiding in full daylight. Black Tom was only one part of their plans: secret anthrax facilities were situated just 10 miles from the White House; bombs were planted on ships, in buildings and mailed in boxes to the country’s civic and business leaders; an underground syndicate helped potential terrorists obtain fake IDs, housing and money. Americans, feeling buffered by miles of ocean and burgeoning prosperity, had ignored the mounting threat. President Wilson himself knew an attack of this magnitude was possible, and yet nothing had been done to stop it—or prosecute those responsible.

But if the White House or the German government thought Black Tom would be easily forgotten, they were wrong. Three American lawyers —John McCloy, Amos Peaslee, and Harold Martin— made it their mission to solve the Black Tom mystery. Their hunt for justice would take them undercover to Europe; deep into the shadowy world of secret agents and double-cross; through the halls of Washington and the capitals of Europe. It would challenge their beliefs in right and wrong, and strain their personal lives. And they would discover a sinister plot so vast it could hardly have been imagined—a conspiracy that stretched from downtown Manhattan to South America to the heart of Berlin.

With the pace of a legal thriller and the detail of the richest history, The Detonators is the first full accounting of a crime and a cover up that resonates strongly in a post-9/11 America.


“A gripping account of conspiracy.”
— New York Times

“A story with which fans of action thrillers will feel entirely comfortable … (About) the deadliest and most brazen act of terrorism on American soil before Sept. 11, 2001, and Millman illustrates, subtly and effectively, the parallels between those events in both execution and reaction.”
— New York Daily News

“Gripping and fascinating … If Millman didn’t base so much of it on actual documents you’d swear it was fiction.”
— New York Post

“Absorbing … A ready-made suspense thriller … Millman recounts the story deftly.”
— The Boston Globe

“Exhaustively researched … fascinating.”
— Entertainment Weekly, 50 Hot Summer Books

“Fascinating … Millman has delved into the story deeply and with verve … this fast-paced, thriller-like tale makes for gripping reading.”
— Publishers Weekly, starred review

“The Detonators is more than an astonishing tale of espionage, keen detective work, and the American instinct for justice; it also calls to us from a past that looks stunningly similar to our futures.”
Rob Kurson, The New York Times Bestselling author of Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II

“Fascinating and timely … a legal thriller that spans two decades and three continents.”
— The New York Observer

“A thrilling, splendidly written—and timely—tale of a forgotten conspiracy, when mysterious enemy agents lurked among us and plotted to force America to her knees. The Detonators is edge of your seat history backed by impeccable scholarship.”
James Swanson, The New York Times Bestselling author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

“Millman deftly narrates … an intriguing, bracing tale, and not just for history buffs.”
Kirkus, starred review

“Compelling enough to read …insightful enough to make you think.”
— The Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Idea

Shortly after my second book, The Odds, was published in March of 2001, I decided that my next project needed to be about something other than sports. My favorite books have always been gripping, non-fiction narratives that did two things: 1) Shed light on a previously unknown event that impacted American history, and 2) Profiled people who became so consumed with a goal they’d risk everything for the sake of achievement. One summer, after reading A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr, I spent days walking around Manhattan talking about the book with my wife, astonished at the sacrifices the lead character, Jan Schlichtmann, had made. I wanted to write about someone like that, someone who, over the course of intensive commitment, slowly re-evaluates their entire belief system.

For a year I surfed the Net, poked around libraries and read any book about history I could get my hands on, hoping to uncover a gem. Then, in March of 2002, after several false starts that took me as far as London to research dead end book ideas, I came across one of those on-this-date-in-history websites. I typed in 1900 and scrolled through the highlights for all 365 days. I found nothing. Then I did the same thing for 1901 and 1902 and 1903. Still nothing. I spent most of the afternoon squinting at the screen, hoping just one of the clipped, two-sentence descriptions would catch me. Then, midway through the year 1916, I came across this for July 30th: “German saboteurs blew up New York Harbor. Much of downtown Manhattan was destroyed.”

This was six months after 9/11. Other than a few newspaper columns, no one had written a thing about this attack as it related to terrorism. I realized I had finally found my next book.

The Info

Unlike my other books, or any magazine article I had ever written, everyone who had anything to do with the cases I write about in The Detonators has died. To be honest, when I began work on this book, I was relieved. Getting primary subjects to open up about the most intimate details of their lives—the ones that make a book worth writing and reading—is stressful. But relatives are often happy to dish.

I was lucky that the children, nieces and nephews of some of the main characters in The Detonators were so willing to share their stories with me. I also stood on the shoulders of dozens of authors who have written about John McCloy, German-American relations and the attack on Black Tom Island.

But most valuable were the writings of the primary characters, not just with regards to the cases, but their lives. The National Archives in College Park, Maryland had every brief written by lawyers for both sides, as well as memos, personal letters and newspaper articles relating to the attacks. The Archives’ files also included thousands of pages of transcripts from the oral arguments, which read so colorfully it felt as if I was in the room as the lawyers argued.


Chapter One

Heinrich Albert was forty years old, carried a briefcase, and worked in an office high above Broadway in one of downtown Manhattan’s brand-new skyscrapers. From his window he could see West Street, crowded with merchants leading horse-drawn carts of fruit, dockworkers pulling on pieces of bread while on their way to the piers, and policemen walking their beats. He watched as cargo ships hauling grain and coal were emptied onto the covered piers stretching out into New York Harbor — ninety-nine of them on the west side of Manhattan, ranging from six hundred to one thousand feet long. Originally built to accommodate ocean liners such as the Lusitania and the Olympic, the piers were too important to use just for luxury travelers. By 1914, more material moved in and out of New York Harbor than anywhere else in the world. The mayor at the time, John Mitchel, worried aloud about the economic consequences worldwide if someone demolished his harbor, and not a soul considered his fears without justification.

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