A gift of “liberated” German stamps from an uncle long ago and an abiding interest in history led McLean author M. John Lubetkin to pen a World War II-era thriller.
“A Million Dollars an Ounce,” his second novel, features non-stop action during that war and the following decade.
The author’s protagonist, U.S. Army paratrooper Harry Strong, comes into possession of a cache of highly valuable stamps being carried by a Nazi who’s part of a larger theft ring. The Nazi’s brother, Franz Seis, is a highly intelligent, cold-blooded killer serving with the dreaded Waffen SS.
The novel is loaded with interesting facts about stamps, not the least of which is that rare ones are not only pricey but portable – just the thing for refugees seeking to clandestinely spirit their wealth out of war zones.
“If you were Jewish, a stamp could be worth more than a diamond or a bar of gold,” the author said.
Seis and his co-conspirators have looted stamps from families and business owners, many of them Jewish, and the strong-willed Nazi is determined to hunt down Strong and reclaim his ill-gotten booty.
The book takes readers on a journey through the war and its aftermath, liberally sprinkling in details on everything from combat and interrogation tactics to the workings of organized crime.
German-born and half-Jewish, Harry is tough and courageous and finds himself in numerous tough spots. He even goes into business with famed mobster Meyer Lansky, as both men want to sell the stamps gradually and unobtrusively to raise money for the nascent country of Israel.
While the author did not base Harry on a real person (“Maybe myself 60 years ago, with a full head of hair,” he said), Lansky and several other characters were actual historical figures. Seis (Spanish for “six”) is based on brutal SS officer Franz Six, who spent several years in prison after the war.
Lubetkin, 80, first became interested in philately at age 7 in 1945, when his artillery-officer cousin, William Green, gave the boy some of the briefcase worth of stamps he had taken from a Nazi post office.
While the author claims only amateur status as a philatelist, he especially is keen on World War II-era stamps, which still featured fancy engraving work instead of today’s photo imaging.
The book’s eye-catching cover, designed by Katie Goldberg, incorporates several such stamps, plus a liberal smattering of blood. One of the stamps shown is from Israel and another depicts a “death head” of Hitler. Both sides forged stamps for propaganda purposes during the war, Lubetkin said.
A native New Yorker, Lubetkin graduated from Northfield Mount Hermon School, earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Union College and a master’s in government from New York University.
After retiring from his career as an executive with a cable-television company, Lubetkin decided he wanted to write history books – and credits Washington’s lackluster football team with freeing up his Sundays.
“I certainly didn’t want to watch the Redskins,” he said.
The author published four non-fiction works through the University of Oklahoma Press, one of which, “Jay Cooke’s Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux and the Panic of 1873,” won the “Best History” prize of the Western Writers of America.
Lubetkin published his first novel, “Custer’s Gold,” in 2015. Fiction and non-fiction historical works succeed if authors do not lapse into deadly dull academic prose, Lubetkin said.
“History can be interesting if you don’t suck all the blood out of it,” he said.
Authors in the Depression era, before academic grants become the norm, had glorious prose styles, he said.
Lubetkin enjoys the writing styles of Elmore Leonard, Philip Kerr, John D. MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett and Stephen King, deeming the last “the best storyteller living today, bar none.”
Lubetkin is looking forward to signing copies of “A Million Dollars an Ounce” at the Philately Show Napex, which will be held June 8 through 10 at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner.
His next novel, which he hopes to publish next spring, will revolve around a Montana politician being blackmailed into not running for president.
Susan Coll, a novelist who has taught classes for two decades at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, said Lubetkin has excelled in both of her yearlong novel-writing workshops.
“He is one of the most prolific and disciplined writers I’ve ever worked with, and he puts a lot of energy into his craft,” she said. “His knowledge of historical detail is impressive. And he is very good with the twisty plot. “