Wednesday, December 31, 2014


It's been a long time since I ripped through a 600-page book as quickly as I did with this alternate history thriller by C.J. Sansom. It's another variation on the theme of Hitler winning the war. This time, Lord Halifax becomes British prime minister in 1940 instead of Churchill and signs a separate peace with Germany.

The story picks up in 1952 as a disaffected civil servant, David Fitzgerald, joins the resistance, led by a Churchill in hiding, opposing the pro-Nazi government of Lord Beaverbrook. He photographs secret documents in the Dominions Office where he works, playing on the affections of a coworker to get access to files. Then he is given a special mission to rescue an Oxford classmate, Frank Muncaster, who has been confined to an asylum after he pushed his brother out a second-floor window in his home. His brother, a scientist working on weapons research in the U.S., had confided information on his project to Frank, who was horrified and went into a rage at the information.

The plot turns on this, admittedly, far-fetched premise, but part of Sansom's artistry is that he convinces the reader to go along with it. If any novelist's task is to make the reader care about his characters, Sansom achieves this with flying colors. He carefully controls the suspense as he takes time to explore extensive backstories not only for David, but for Frank, for David's wife Sarah, and eventually for the German Gestapo agent set on their trail, Gunther Hoth.

David and Sarah have lost their only child, who died in a tumble down the stairs. David learned from his mother on her deathbed that she was Jewish, a fact concealed after her family immigrated to Ireland, making him half-Jewish -- or, as he reminds his friend in the novel, since there is no such thing as a half-Jew in the Nazi world, making him Jewish. The only other person who knows this is his father, safely emigrated to New Zealand, but David lives in fear his secret will be revealed.

Much of the narrative tension comes from the growing strain between David and Sarah, as he pursues his life of secrets and lies. She of course first suspects an affair, and David's mission-related flirtation with his coworker fuels this suspicion. There is also the fragile trust between Frank and David, who was one of Frank's few friends in university. Frank is unstable, an odd child bullied and shunned through school and fearful of the secret he has learned from his brother.

And so the plot progresses through a credibly rendered 1950s London unmarked by the ravages of a war that never took place, with forays to the asylum in Birmingham, and eventually the flight of Frank, David, and his resistance colleagues as they seek to keep Frank and his secret out of clutches of the German, or even the collaborating British.

This builds to a satisfying climax over a couple of hundred pages as the resistance mission scrambles to achieve its goal against the backdrop of an ailing Hitler nearing death and the prospect of civil war in Germany over his succession. Sansom even makes an historic smog in London an important factor in the plot.

Sansom is a skilled writer and the book is a pleasure to read. I had read Dissolution and perhaps another one of the Shardlake novels, set in Elizabethan England, as well as Winter in Madrid, but I am fascinated by these alternate histories. This one bears comparison to Fatherland and is at least as good if not better.

There is evidence of sloppy or nonexistent editing. A car's headlights are turned off twice within the space of a paragraph. We are told one of David's resistance colleagues bonded with Frank after sharing the story of her brother, but then several pages later treated to a scene where she is actually doing the sharing.

But these scarcely interfere with the flow of the narrative, enlivened by sharp sketches of the other characters -- David's pompous superior at work, a Special Branch officer assigned to work with the Gestapo in tracking down Frank, a female resistance operative who falls in love with David while assisting him in the rescue of Frank, complicating his strained relationship with Sarah, and several other skillfully drawn minor characters who don't remain two-dimensional plot devices.

Sansom discloses in passing in the acknowledgements that he was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer during the writing of the book and underwent (apparently successful) treatment, making his accomplishment even more admirable.

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