I've been catching up on well deserved classics that I haven't gotten around to reading yet, so in the dual interests of the mystery genre and my love of alternate history, I delved into the 1992 novel Fatherland. Written by Robert Harris, it explores an alternate world where Hitler's Germany did not lose WWII. Now, the Nazi colossus sits from the Atlantic to the Urals, holding all Europe, save Switzerland, under its sway. Having corralled the formerly independent nations of the Continent into a sham 'European Community' as well as engaging in a forever war along the long eastern frontier at the A-A line. Victory in hand, Hitler then turned his attention to creating his ultimate victory city in a garish redesign of Berlin.
The year is 1964.
Our story begins in the new Berlin, a body has been found washed up along the Havel River, near the heart of where the Nazi Party elite live. Detective Xavier March of the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo), and former U-boat sailor, is called to the scene of what at first seems to be the accidental death of an old Party member. Something of a recluse, the victim seems to have little connection to anyone other than being an original member of the Party. However, in an age of increasing terrorism at the heart of the German Reich, who can be sure?
The plot unfolds though as March, on a hunch, continues his investigations after the Gestapo claims jurisdiction over the case. He begins to unravel a disturbing conspiracy at the heart of the Nazi regime, one dating all the way back to the war and deals with the mysterious disappearances of all the Jews in Germany.
Along the way he meets American reporter Charlotte "Charlie" Maguire, while also dealing with numerous Nazi bigwigs and little men who are eager to dissuade his curiosity. But, he still has help in the form of his friend and partner Max Jaeger, who still aims to help him despite being a man not inclined to question the state.
Obviously, as this is a mystery thriller I won't be spoiling many details for you, but I think more than a few readers will be aware of the twist in this novel early on. I certainly was, but that did not mean I did not enjoy the book because of it.
While many fans of alternate history probably now find the idea of a Nazi victory story overdone, I still consider this to be a top rate novel. Rather than tell an exhaustive story of how the world got to where it was, the story is merely the setting for an intriguing thriller plot which uses that world as the background. It does of course, detail some of the alternate history leading to the Nazi control of Europe and the post-war Cold War with the United States.
Personally, what I found evocative of the novel was the setting. The premise is explained and partially justified but we are just told the story through these characters eyes as they live in this world. It is one where the Nazi Party reigns supreme over every aspect of German life, they remain constantly vigilant in attempting to police/purge the occupied territories of the East, while also struggling to catch up to a world where technology is moving quicker than men like Hitler and his cronies could anticipate. Terrorists are constantly targeting Germans, while the Germans themselves grow fat off the spoils of Occupied Europe, with Slavic laborers building their cities and English maids serving their tea.
March is a man who has grown up listening only to Party propaganda, and he still resents the Party despite the high standard of living he enjoys. Even with all that, his inquisitive nature makes him someone the Nazis would naturally be suspicious of. His interactions with Charlie, who has an outsiders perspective of Nazi Germany, are quite interesting. He uses this to ask questions he could never ask of another German person. He finds out about the horrible casualties incurred in the forever war on the frontier in the East against the Soviets and their partisans, and knows that much of the propaganda spouted against America is probably untrue, and even being toned down in light of the attempted detente with the United States.
These alternate 1960s are now defined by the interactions between the Reich and America. While we don't have as much of a global look as other stories might tell, the background to the story is fascinating and really establishes the characters and the world they exist in.
As for the plot, while many may see the twist coming, you are kept guessing as to whether anything will come of March's efforts to uncover the truth. He is constantly dodging a series of legal and lethal hurdles as the Gestapo seek to overcome any attempt to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the Reich. It has all the good times of a spy thriller and a serial detective novel.
March himself is an engaging character. He has a policeman's sense of duty, constantly questioning and looking to solve crimes. He is also a former patriot. He loves Germany, and pursued a career in the navy because his father served in the Great War, but he has become disillusioned with what the Reich has grown in to. A man against his people as it were.
Charlie is a great sidekick, and as a kickass woman she deserves to be praised. An investigative journalist who is always looking for the next big scoop, she has German heritage and rebels against her family by carrying on in such a semi-dangerous career.
The somewhat forced attraction between the two leads felt, to me at least, as detrimental to the story. A love story (or lust story as the case may be) was not really necessary. Charlie would have been a stronger character without it, as there was not much chemistry between the two.
Fatherland though, is a deserved alternate history classic. Unlike the other stories I've reviewed, the spy thriller that was A Kill in the Morning and the war story which was Festung Europa, this one relies very much on its two leads to carry the story rather than increasing stakes or the drivers of history. It also shows you that stories set in one of the 'overdone' settings of alternate history, can, and most likely will, give you some great entertainment.