It's a brave author who decides to wrtie a thriller about the election of a pope. After all the action is largely limited to a group of elderly men being locked away until they can agree which of them is going to be supreme pontiff. They are allowed no contact with the outside so it's hard to move things along with a little bit of extra infrmation coming in and changing things.
Robert Harris nearly pulls it off. He's very good at pacing his books, There is some tension as front-runners for the election drop out in one way or another, one or two mysterious things going on, a completely unknown cardinal turns up at the last mment and it become's apparent that the recently deceased pope had a prvate agenda of his own. Ultimately it fails to satisfy though, I felt that the cardinal who was elected to bepope was firstly a huge cop- out, secndly disticntly rpedicatable and thirdly not very believeable.
I don't regret reading it, the backgrund info about how popes are elected was fascinating and it was a page turner, it's just it's not one to look back on and savour.
In 1895, Alfred Dreyfus, a French army captain and a jew from Alsace was convicted of spying for the Germans and sent to Devil's Island for life. The gradual realisation that the wrong man had been convicted and that the Army and the French authorities were steadfastly refusing to consider that Dreyfus might be innocent became a scandal that rocked the French establishment, revealed the deep seam of anti-semitism in all levels of French society, caused suicides, halted careers and toppled governments. No spoilers there - it's history and any of us who studied late nineteenth century European history will have touched, albeit briefly on the Dreyfus case.
The story unfolds in the words of Colonel Georges Picquart, the new head of one of the army intelligence departments who got his post, ironically enough, for how well he observed Dreyfus's trial, who though he initially believes completely in Dreyfus's guilt begins to realise that he cannot be a spy. But his superiors won't listen to him and Picquard, who has his own fair share of anti-semitism and doesn't actually like Dreyfus either (he taught him in military school) is driven by his sense of justice to risk everything, his career, his and his friends' reputations, even coming close to losing his life while he fights to establish Dreyfus's innosense - a battle that lasts years.
This really is a cracking good read, which zipped along like a thriller - despite me knowing what happened in the end, and is one of those exceptional works of historical fiction that seem to open a window on a previous age. It also seems uncomfortably close to home in many ways, if you didn't believe that conspiracies can develop you will after reading this and you also might get a nasty feeling that it wouldn't be so difficult for another Dreyfus-sort of case to happen .
Very highly recommended.
Berlin, 1964. In the days leading up to Adolf Hitler's 75th birthday celebrations, a body with its foot cut off is fished out of a lake. The case is assigned to Xavier March, a senior investigator in the Kripo police force, and his bumbling partner Max Jaeger.
This is not, as you might have guessed already, the Berlin of 50 years ago as you might remember it, for in Fatherland, which Harris debuted with in 1992, the Nazis emerged victorious from the Second World War. The Greater German Reich now extends from Spain to Russia, with the Soviet Union a fraction of its true size. The Germans are locked in a Cold War with the United States but, in a major diplomatic coup, the incumbent US President Joesph Kennedy (JFK's father) is about to visit Berlin.
The case proves to be politically sensitive. The body is that of Josef Buhler, who proves to have links to several other recent deaths of senior Nazis. Consequently, the Gestapo become interested and a turf war between they and the Kripo ensues. March, not a good Party man, is distrusted even by his 10-year old son and Hitler Youth member Pili.
Initially, Buhler seems to have been involved in fraud with the other dead men, siphoning money into a Swiss bank account - the Swiss have retained their neutrality in this world - and March is, with some reluctance by his bosses, granted permission to travel to Zurich to investigate, alongside American investigative journalist Charlotte "Charlie" Maguire. As both investigate, the fraud appears to be a cover for something much darker which I won't tell you about here or I will spoil the novel's climax.
Harris has meticulously realized his alternate world, but manages to keep the story moving swiftly along without becoming bogged down in describing it. This is a Germany obsessed with paranoia and rank where you are nobody without a uniform and justice is meted out brutally and arbitrarily, not least to March himself. It has, of course, been racially purified as the Nazis would have wished. March discovers the photo of a Jewish family who had previously owned his apartment but all he knows of them and their fellow Jews is that they have been "shipped East".
All in all, this is a highly efficient and readable thriller, although the concept behind it is hardly a novel one - sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick's excellent The Man in the High Castle covered similar ground almost 50 years ago, as, more recently, has CJ Sansom's Dominion.
"Engineer Marcus Attilius Primus has taken charge of the Aqua Augusta, the aqueduct which brings water to a quarter of a million people. His predecessor has disappeared. When a crisis strikes the Augusta's main line, Attilus discovers that there are forces which even the Roman Empire can't control."
I had read Robert Harris's earlier novels and enjoyed them (even Archangel) and so looked forward to reading this one when offered the chance. I have to say I didn't enjoy it. I'm sure I should have. The story idea was a good one and the plot worked but there was something missing. It just didn't engage me the way it should have.
Imperium - Robert Harris
I've enjoyed all of Robert Harris' books up until this one. Set in the world of Roman politics, this novel follows the rise of Cicero through the political ranks, as told by his secretary. I can remember Harris being widely interviewed when the hardback came out talking about the wide ranging research he had done and I was looking forward to being transported back into a fascinating period in history.
I confess that I've abandoned this book at page 70, mostly because I wasn't gripped by the story but also because I was finding all of the characters with their unwieldly names hard to manage. It's back on the shelf for the time being, but I need someone to convince me that I should give it another go, otherwise, it's off to greenmetropolis.
P.S. Not sure if this is the right place for this thread, but Pompei, his last book, is here.