Last year I told a friend that while I enjoy alternate history, I wish authors would learn that there was more to the past than World War II. A Nazi victory against the Allies can easily prove tiresome and cliched, relying far too often on America as a linchpin. With that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised by Fatherland. It shakes the formula up by putting the focus squarely on Nazi Germany itself, a perfect setting for the novel's noir vibe.
The hard-boiled detective at the heart of this dark mystery is Xavier March, a U-boat veteran turned policeman. Amid preparations for the 1964 celebration of the Führer's birthday, March investigates the apparent suicide of an old Party leader. Interference from the Gestapo, his own superiors, and an intriguing American reporter fail to deter him as he uncovers clues relating not just to this death, but several, and a conspiracy at the highest reaches of the Reich.
Author Robert Harris is deft at creating mood, with language evocative enough to create an entire alternate reality yet tinged with the sparse efficiency of a totalitarian worldview. There are no lengthy descriptions or explanations; exposition springs naturally form the story and March's own characteristic musings. It's a case study in how to create a world through words.
March is on the typical pulp antihero downward spiral. He enjoys nothing but the work (and often not even that), his marriage ended years ago, and his few friends appear mere means to his dubious ends. But he carves out empathy by having real, grounded reasons for his malaise. When asked how he can stand to wear his leather and jackboots, he offers a commentary on his country's state:
In 1936, the Kriminalpolizei was merged into the SS; all officers had to accept honorary SS rank.So I have a choice: either I'm an investigator in that uniform, and try to do a little good; or I'm something else without that uniform, and do no good at all.
Tellingly, he admits that he and his fellow citizens have stopped believing in even that flimsy justification: in a corrupt state, where the police serve political expediency over justice, there are few choices left except fanaticism, cynicism, or apathy.
Yet none of the characters, even March himself, fit comfortably within these approved molds, instead straddling and straining the lines between them with unexpected moments of cruelty and charity, even humor and pathos. Unflinching in its portrayal of institutional immorality, the narrative avoids being overly oppressive or nihilistic by following March's very personal, hard-fought journey.
There are some pitfalls. March, while dogged, hardly appears as good a detective as he's often claimed to be, making his later leaps in logic (or lack thereof) feel unearned. That's part and parcel of the noir genre, as is the foregone conclusion that once a woman becomes a main character, she will necessarily be smartly sexy, charmingly vulgar, and attracted to the protagonist. She may not be paperthin, but she's as conventional as the rainy days, casual profanity, and violent murder.
Still, and despite the abrupt ending, I didn't retreat from Fatherland repelled by the story. Instead, Harris managed a rare feat: he used the trappings of two genres with inventiveness to arouse fresh horror at an old, almost prosaic past evil. The facts March uncovers may be familiar to readers, but each is transformed into a chilling, emotional revelation.
This review will also posted on Goodreads and Amazon. I did not receive anything from the publisher or author for this review. The book is currently available from Random House via Amazon as a Paperback ($10.20).