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It is a spring day in 1964 in Berlin, when the body of an elderly man is fished out of a lake. Detective Xavier March is not convinced that the death was accident or suicide and begins to investigate. But this is a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two – a world in which Hitler still rules and the people of Germany and the lands they conquered are in the grip of a totalitarian regime. When March is told that the Gestapo are taking over the case, he finds he can’t let go of it, and soon he will begin to suspect that the murder was only a tiny part of a great conspiracy, the revelation of which would strike at the very foundations of the regime. And he finds himself in ever increasing danger…
I believe this was Harris’ ‘breakthrough’ novel when it was published back in 1992, and I’m not surprised. It’s a wonderfully realised alternative history – accept the basic premise that the Nazis won and all the rest flows from it with total credibility. The state that Harris describes is a kind of mash-up of Orwellian ideas with the realities of the Soviet Union of the Cold War era.
But I think the reason it works so well is that Harris doesn’t get too bogged down in describing his world at the expense of plot. His main characters are entirely fictional rather than, as so often happens with this kind of alternative history, fictionalised versions of real people. Although Hitler, Churchill and others get mentioned, they’re not directly involved in the story. Nor is March any different than he would have been in our reality – he’s an ordinary dedicated police detective with no great love or hate towards the regime. He’s still fairly young, so his life since a child has been under the Nazis and he accepts it as normal, and just wants to be allowed to get on with his job. It’s only as the story progresses and he gets nearer to the secret at the heart of it that he begins to realise the true horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in their early years.
The other aspect that I thought was done particularly well was how Harris showed what happens to regimes like this when they manage to stay in power for a long time. Just as in real totalitarian states, most people are not dissidents – they accept life as it is, grumble a bit about the things they don’t like, and don’t pay a lot of attention to things that don’t affect them directly. But it’s the ’60s, and attitudes are changing even here. Young people want to know more about the wider world – they want to travel and read books from other cultures and listen to the Beatles. With advancing technology it’s harder for the regime to control all information flows as easily as they once did so people are becoming more aware of what life is like in other parts of the world. Although the story is not about the pressure for change or for a return to democracy, the reader can sniff it in the air. The old leaders are ageing fast – the world goes on turning, regimes evolve or die. Harris handles all this superbly, I thought. He also shows how other nations, once adversaries, have had to accept the realpolitik of the situation and begin to deal with Germany as just another state. Defeated little Britain barely gets a mention, its power in the world long gone. The American President is about to finally give formal recognition to the Nazi regime by making a state visit to the country.
But all this is relayed to the reader lightly as background to the main story. Meantime March is involved in a traditional style thriller, where he’s racing to find the truth before the Gestapo stop him. He’s aided by a young, female, American journalist stationed in Berlin, who as well as being involved in the main plot, tells March how the regime is seen by outsiders and reveals things about their actions that the world knows but the citizens of Nazi Germany don’t, including the Holocaust. (As a side note, I found some of the descriptions of this aspect to be particularly graphic and somewhat upsetting, though obviously true and therefore not gratuitous.)
I’ve tried not to say much about the plot because it’s nicely labyrinthine and much of the pleasure comes from being led through it gradually. I’ll simply say that while some of it is deliberately obvious, lots of it isn’t, and though I felt rightly that I knew where we were heading, I still didn’t know at all what route we would take or what would happen when we got there. I hope that’s enigmatic enough to be intriguing!
I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Michael Jayston who did a great job. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book both for the skill of the plotting and for the excellence of the creation of the alternative history. Highly recommended – Harris really is a master at this kind of historical thriller.
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