It's September 1938 and Europe appears to be about to be dragged into a war by Hitler less than 20 years since the end of the Great War that killed millions. Neville Chamberlain, desperate to maintain peace, hastens to Munich to try and bring about some form of settlement.
We all know what happened at Munich and there aren't many surprises in this book, Robert Harris sticks closely to the facts and, as far as I can tell, only has two invented characters, Legatt , one of Chamberlain's private secretaries and Hartmann, a minor German aristocrat and diplomat who is part of the highly secret antiHitler faction. Legatt and Hartmann were friends at Oxford. Hartmann is trying to involve Legatt in plans to destabilse Hitler which introduces a nice element of tension but where Robert Harris really excells is in his skill in setting a scene. You really feel that you're there in London, collecting your gasmasks, terrified that war is about to be declared or one of the many who stayed inside when Hitler ordered a massive parade of military stregth in Berlin, silently indicating opposition to the idea of war. He presents Chamberlain as an honourable, thoughtful man who knows that war is probably inevitable sometime but wants to delay it as long as possible, for many reasons, not the least being that his memeories of the last, terrible war are so vivid.
If you enjoy books that open a window on the past I'd reccommend this. Harris says that one of the joys of writing fiction is that he can embellish in ways that non-fiction writers can't - such as putting in a scene after the settlement is agreed where Chamberlain is greeted by ecstatically cheering crowds outside his hotel in Munich - all fact - and Harris has a band striking up with The Lambeth Walk.
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.
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.