Spoilers. Heed this – this book is worth reading, but it hinges on some twists you don’t want to know about.
Lots of thriller conventions – this moved so like a movie, and it’s no surprise that it was made into one soon after its publication in 1992. The love interest is so clichéd – this young dream girl who is, of course, smart and sassy, but also can’t help but fall for our older, craggy, cynical leading man – as they run from the authorities in a race to track the MacGuffin. A forty-something Harrison Ford would be made for this world-weary maverick cop, failed marriage behind him, who won’t play the political game with his by-the-book superiors, but hangs on to his job because he’s actually a sharp detective with such an impressive war record. And any of a number of the legion of attractive twenty-something starlets could fill the role of the wild young spirit that reawakens his hope. The tension and pacing steadily builds, with minor victories and threats becoming graver, until the inevitable climax. You could look at the structure of this story and write it off as a by-the-numbers unit airport-novel unit mover.
Harris does this really well. And, while some conventions really have been done to death (although Joseph Campbell might say that story equals convention), there is a reason for their popularity. Sure some manifestations are pretty much only conventions, or even hints of conventions where they don’t even do the work of creating them but just leave it to the reader/viewer to do the work (“OK, here’s the girl, you know the drill – do we have to spell it out?”). March is a strikingly typical hero in terms of trappings and adjectives, yet Harris still builds him, giving him intelligent and biting lines, painting him initially getting annoyed with the girl and trying to shake her off, creating scenarios where he can show integrity without stupidly exposing himself (well, except for one poignant moment), and his final reading of betrayal and consequent choice is a triumph (and, finally, a departure from the Hollywood ending – which was completely available and valid, but would have been less profound, if more immediately gratifying). Charlotte is less textured, but while she is essentially an accessory, she’s not merely one.
Interesting that I haven’t even got to the unsubtle hook of the book, unashamedly shouted on the front cover of my edition, “What if Hitler had won?” But that’s all it’s really played for – a hook (a wonderfully effective hook – Harris said he managed to buy a very nice house out of the proceeds of this book) – and I think Harris was particularly clever in the way he used it. This could have been a novel for trainspotters, with names, events and locations being dropped constantly – but it’s not. It’s a thriller, and Harris never lets the diverting context overwhelm the pacing and the conventional characters and detective/conspiracy story. A victorious Germany is always kept in the background. Harris shows great self-control in not giving in to the cheap titillation of trading blows or bullets or invective with Hitler or Goebbels or Himmler: indeed, I don’t think we actually meet any celebrities (Nebe? But he’s not A-list) – this is a story about our little guy hero. We have patches of straight from Orwell totalitarian lifestyle: deliberately constant war context to justify claustrophobic government control and paranoia in its citizens; austerity for the populus with ludicrous government spending on monuments and indulgence for the elite; the subversion of infant loyalty from parents to the state. There are little sixties historical treats – a Kennedy in office, a popular band out of Liverpool – but Harris doesn’t pose for the WW2 buffs (“Hey, check out my research. Pretty good, huh?”) – he gets his audience in with the effective Nazi teaser, but then keeps them turning pages with a rattling good thriller plot.
There were some holes, probably the largest that the guy holding the MacGuffin chose to pin all his hopes on the relatively powerless daughter of a US State Department official. With all his cronies dying around him, why Luther came back into Germany when he had the very documents that would get him to the US from a neutral country, and seemingly with no plan for being searched at the airport…? Well, it’s obvious why – it set up the killer conclusion, March’s clever insight and brave sacrifice: dramatically killer, logically dodgy. And the conclusion is particularly satisfying because Harris, as well as not giving the guy the girl and a sunset/parade/beach/penthouse, doesn’t spell out the victory. We’re not even sure Charlie made it out, but there’s enough hope for us given March’s clever diversion and her careful journalism noted throughout the investigation. We’ve had these sort of happy ending treats so often they have lost much of their flavour – this is refreshing.
So despite the cliché and this plot quibble, overall I enjoyed the ride, partly because he can write, and partly because Harris never let the context undermine/overwhelm the engaging plot movement. I was also occasionally surprised by particularly effective dialogue, characterisation and the stunning climactic twist.