Historical fiction is dangerous territory for a writer. It’s all too easy to make actual people, say, Abraham Lincoln or John Wilkes Booth, into stick figures, and actual events, say, Booth’s assassination of Lincoln, into just another thriller or romance novel. Consider “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.
A related genre is based on alternate history, the field of what-if. What if the South had won the Civil War? MacKinlay Kantor came up with a plausible and interesting take on that in 1960.
This can be pushed to silly extremes. What if Nazi-like South Africans from this era had travelled back in time to supply Robert E. Lee’s troops with AK-47s?
Too silly to find a publisher, you say? Not at all. In 1992, Ballantine published “The Guns of the South” by Harry Turtledove, telling just that story.
“Fatherland,” published in the same year, provides a much more nuanced look at how history might have evolved if a few events had gone differently. Indeed, in Robert Harris’s hands, it’s a crackerjack of a novel that meets the needs of genre fiction, yet also teaches a lesson from the past, perhaps the most important lesson of the last century.
It’s 1964, and, in Berlin, Xavier March is an SS detective investigating the apparent drowning of a former high-ranking Nazi. Adolf Hitler is still alive, still in power, looming over a Germany that has dominated Europe since decisively winning World War II. Winston Churchill is in exile in Canada. And, because this is alternate history, in the U.S., President Kennedy wasn’t assassinated in Dallas, and, in fact, isn’t the President Kennedy you’d expect.
Hitler and Kennedy do not have speaking roles in the novel so Harris doesn’t have to deal with the mental images that readers have of the men as they appeared in real history.
There are historical figures, such as Josef Buhler and Wilhelm Stuckart, who function as important characters, but these Nazi bureaucrats are so little known to the public that Harris is safe in using them to build his story.
Which March discovers to be a murder mystery.
Although he is in the SS, March is no true-believer in National Socialism. Indeed, like world-weary detectives in more routine crime novels, he is skeptical and suspicious of authority. He’s a cop.
Harris does a fine job of making March believable and interesting as he doggedly chases down clues while being harassed by the secret police arm of the SS.
He does a fine job, too, of filling his novel with tiny alternate history surprises. For instance, in March’s world, Barbara Cartland isn’t writing her romance novels about British royalty. The subject of the Cartland book a widow is reading is “The Kaiser’s Ball.” And Charles Lindbergh, a pariah during and after World War II for his flirtation with Hitler, has a high U.S. government post in this reality.
Most of all, though, this is a spellbinding story because March isn’t just on the hunt for a killer of a string of old Nazis. He begins to realize that the motive for the murders is deep and dark. And he starts to get glimpses of the greatest secret in his nation’s history — the answer to the question no one is courageous enough to ask: What happened to Germany’s and Europe’s Jews during World War II?
So why does March continue? He knows he’s entering a deadly landscape when he pursues such questions.
He had narrowed his life to such a point that the only thing left was his work. If he betrayed that, what else was there?
And there was something else, the instinct that propelled him out of bed every morning into each unwelcoming day, and that was the desire to know. In police work, there was always another junction to reach, another corner to peer around….It kept him going, his blessing or his curse, this compulsion to know. And so, in the end, there was no choice.
That urge to know is what pushes him as it pushes other detectives in other mysteries. It also pushes historians who are willing to face and study and seek to understand humanity’s deepest evils in the search for truth.
Genre writing is almost always shallow. Historical fiction and alternate fiction are often just as superficial.
With “Fatherland,” Harris has transcended genre to create a book that is compelling and sobering, an entertainment that is a history lesson about a crime that should never be forgotten.
Patrick T. Reardon