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In 1934, facing Nazi persecution, German playwright and novelist Max Mohr packed his bags, said goodbye to his loyal wife

and young daughter, and booked it from Wolfsgrub to Shanghai to practice medicine. He never returned—and Frederick Reuss has spent 20 years trying to figure out why.

Mohr: A Novel is Reuss’ long-researched yet inconclusive final word on his great-great uncle’s abandonment. The 45-year-old author, who writes from his home on Capitol Hill, had been thinking of Mohr since hearing his name as a child. “It was a mystery,” he recalls. “I became curious for lack of any information.”

For his detective work, Reuss contacted Mohr’s grandson in Munich, who turned over a trove of correspondence, literary efforts, and family photographs. Reuss sprinkled his pseudohistory with the material, heightening the tension between truth and fiction. There’s also plenty of tension supplied from the character of Mohr, who answers his wife’s heart-wrenching entreaties with surprising carelessness and eventually begins an affair with a nurse.

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The novel is the fourth for Reuss, and it continues his exploration of estrangement. His previous protagonists include the recluse in 1998’s Horace Afoot, who lives in a town called Oblivion and finds solace in phoning strangers, and the degenerative-disease sufferer of 2003’s The Wasties, who can barely communicate at all. As for Mohr, Reuss didn’t need to embellish to establish his dysfunction: The doctor put off his family’s hopes of joining him until 1937, which is when he died, still in Shanghai, of a probable heart attack.

Reuss didn’t have much trouble channeling his distant uncle. “It’s uncanny the way I feel proximity to the man,” he says. “He was a writer as well….I also had his own works to rely on, and in those works are clues of the kinds of preoccupations he had on an existential level.” In some parts of the novel, this preoccupied man is depicted as a hero, rushing about to save lives as the Japanese intensify their invasions of China. In others, he’s seen writing painfully vague letters to the family he ditched.

Reuss doesn’t write too much about what ultimately drove Mohr from his family. “It’s the question underlying the whole book. I didn’t come up with an answer to it,” he says. But he does proffer a guess.

“I think he figured that when he got his shit together, he would send for his family when the time was right. But the time was never right.” —Isaiah Thompson