"Fatherland" presents an audaciously brilliant concept: Nazi Germany and its Fuhrer are still in business in 1964, forming the backdrop of a murder mystery where nothing is as it seems. The mystery, however, is pedestrian and the alternate history haphazard.
In a quiet, well-off suburb of Berlin, not long before the city celebrates Hitler's 75th birthday, a body is found beside a lake. The victim, a high-ranking Nazi official named Buhler no one seems to know much about, appears to have drowned during a drunken swim, but police detective Xavier March has questions. In short order he finds himself the target of black-suited SS honchos, with only his wits, a few friends, and a beautiful American reporter to help him get to the bottom of an awesome crime.
Reminiscent of "Gorky Park" and "The ODESSA File", though not as good as either, "Fatherland" presents us with some stock characters, a fitfully-engaging plot, and a somewhat implausible notion that the Holocaust could hold the key to Hitler's overthrow if only word about it could get out to what's left of the free world. Robert Harris was just starting out as a fiction writer when this was published in 1992, and you can feel his debt to past thriller writers more than you do any unique voice that might make us want to see past such logic gaps.
Harris does develop a nicely seedy, oppressive atmosphere, which does compensate a bit for some major questions left unanswered about this imaginary postwar Europe dominated by Hitler. The chief villain may be an overbearing thug, but he is believably enabled by the dim culpability of a number of seemingly "good Germans" who simply serve their system a little too blindly. Late in the story, March finds himself talking to a younger Gestapo agent who tries to convince March he's part of a new and younger order not liable to repeat old mistakes; he's not evil himself but just doesn't think about things too hard.
March does, which is his strength and his curse. Even before the story begins, he has grave doubts about the country he serves. He found a photograph in his apartment, of a long-vanished Jewish family, and their faces gnaw at his conscience. He wasn't part of any Final Solution directly; he spent his war years in a U-Boat. But he comes to realize even there, living underwater in a metal tube, he was literally up to his neck in the carnage. If he acts a bit rashly under the circumstances, you understand why.
That Harris approaches the story of the Holocaust with empathy as well as inventiveness are points in his favor, but one wishes he found a better way to tie it into the rather desultory murder story at its center. The killing does link up to the larger framework of the novel, but Harris takes too long developing this. Suspense builds only to evaporate quickly. A romantic subplot reeking of Hollywood packaging eats up too many pages. And the real-life conference at the heart of this mystery is inadequately presented.
Maybe I judge too harshly because I wanted to like this more. Harris's heart was in the right place and he manages an okay result, but if you are going to use the real deaths of millions as a backdrop for a thriller, it needs to be better than okay.
What did you think of this review?
Fun to Read
About the reviewer
Bill Slocum (Bill_Slocum)
Reading is my way of eavesdropping on a thousand conversations, meeting hundreds of new and fascinating people, and discovering what it is about the world I enjoy most. Only after a while, I lose track … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.
An eerie, detailed alternate history serves as the backdrop for this otherwise conventional crime thriller. The setting is Berlin, 1964, some 20 years after the Third Reich's victory in WW II. Germany and the U.S., the world's two superpowers, find themselves in a cold war resulting from a nuclear stalemate; but U.S. President Joseph P. Kennedy is soon to visit Berlin for an historic summit meeting with Hitler, clearing the way for detente. Meanwhile, cynical police detective Xavier March investigates the drowning of Josef Buhler, former state secretary in the General Government. When the Gestapo takes over the case--ruling it suicide--March continues his investigation at the risk of his life, uncovering a deadly conspiracy at the highest levels of the Reich. With the help of American reporter Charlotte Maguire, he finds hard evidence of the wartime extermination of Europe's Jews, a secret that Buhler and his colleagues have been murdered to protect. Of course March and Maguire fall in love along the way. Harris ( Selling Hitler ) generates little suspense in this tale beyond his piecemeal rendering of the novel's unusual historical setting. The characters are flat and the plot largely predictable. And readers may well question the taste of using the Holocaust as the point of departure for a rather insubstantial, derivative thriller. 75,000 first printing; BOMC selection. Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to ...