This year marks the centenary of one of the most significant Dutch authors of the 20th century. Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) wrote compellingly dark and highly suspenseful wartime fiction, the best of which centers upon tarnished individuals forced to make desperate decisions and live with the consequences.

In "The Darkroom of Damocles" (1958), a tobacconist swaps his unexciting existence for one of madness, danger and deception when he is recruited by his doppelganger into the Dutch resistance. In the perfectly formed 1951 novella "An Untouched House," a Dutch partisan takes refuge in an abandoned estate — but then a patrol of Nazis turns up at the door.

"A Guardian Angel Recalls" is the latest work from Hermans' sizable back catalog to be translated into English for the first time, in this case by David Colmer. Originally published in 1971, the novel sees Hermans once again tracking the exploits of a flawed man who finds himself increasingly out of his depth and unsure which way to turn.

That man is a public prosecutor and former heavy drinker called Alberegt. We first meet him at a Dutch port bidding an emotional farewell to his German Jewish lover Sysy. He has kept her safe for the past four months, but now, on the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, she has decided to leave the country for sanctuary in America. Bereft and confused, Alberegt drives away, but in a moment of distraction he runs over and kills a young girl. Rather than admit responsibility, he hides the body and disappears from the scene of his crime.

His guardian angel chides him for this cowardly move and urges him to turn himself in. But a devil tugs him in the opposite direction by whispering diabolical suggestions into his other ear. Unable to tell the voices apart and routinely plagued by pangs of self-loathing and heartbreak, Alberegt struggles on. His problems intensify when the Germans start dropping bombs and when his friend Erik asks for help in locating a missing girl — one who fits the description of his victim. Can Alberegt redeem himself before his world implodes?

This is a bold and blistering novel fronted by a grimly fascinating protagonist. Alberegt's turnaround from so-called "guardian of public morality" to guilt-racked criminal is well handled. Hermans fleshes him out by imbuing him with misguided beliefs about the enemy ("Hitler's going to leave us alone") and an impulse to always do the wrong thing: "I have to flee," he tells himself at one point. "I'm already half unmasked."

Yet the book amounts to more than a sharp character study. Hermans explores moral conundrums through the reckless acts, selfish thoughts, and crises of conscience of his antihero. Better still, his angelic narrator provides insight into life in the Netherlands under the Nazi jackboot, and reflects eloquently on the brutality, but also the futility, of war.

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

A Guardian Angel Recalls

By: Willem Frederik Hermans.

Publisher: Archipelago Books, 510 pages, $20.