Fatherland by Thomas Harris. Alternate History, Mystery.
I love alternate history novels. Give me some Turtledove any day of the week and I’ll eat it up. So the premise of this novel was extremely attractive. Germany effectively won WWII and has Europe on a leash. The US is led by President Joe Kennedy. There is a guerilla war in the east against what is left of the Soviet Union.
Detective Xavier March is assigned the case of a body that washes up in an affluent neighborhood in Berlin, a week before Hitler’s 75th birthday. And things go on from there. It’s a mystery, first to discover the identity of the victim, then to determine how and why he died. About halfway through the book I realized what the big reveal was going to be. There wasn’t a whole lot of suspense in those terms. The problem is that the part of the premise is finding out that Nazis are bad. Well I already know that!! I just kept reading to find out what happened to March. It was serviceable as a mystery and well written as a book. It relied a bit too heavily on one of the tropes of the alt-history genre, which is the hist-cute. The idea that President Kennedy is Joe. Hey, you can’t get black music in Nazi Germany in 1964! Little details that if played right set the atmosphere became distractions from the plot. Once the tension is built and the chase is on, I could give a crap who is on the radio. I wasn’t disappointed in the overall ending of the book, I was pleased with where the main characters ended their journeys. There were a couple of things that jut got under my skin.
1) The name Xavier March. Harris goes out of his way to use copious amounts of German in the book. It provides a lovely atmosphere, all the Herrs and Frauleins and Sturmmbahnfuhrers. There are enough German titles and place names to completely alienate a reader with no German experience (Grandma is from Bavaria, I was fine with it). But March. No one in Germany is named March. The month is Marz. The verb is Marsch. Harris came up with a suitably dramatic and heroic name for his hero and didn’t change it to fit with the rest of the language of the book. It broke the continuity for me. It’s an error that only a German speaker, and an anal retentive one at that, is going to to catch but it niggled at me. Especially given that Harris provides meticulous and accurate details throughout the rest of the novel. Like the cute little historical flourishes, ideas that Harris got, loved and couldn’t not include regardless of what they did to the pacing or tone. This was his first novel so it’s understandable that he was learning authorial self control.
2) The Romance. March is described as a sort of strung out detective, divorced and caring only about his job. He’s in his early forties. His sidekick, for lack of a better term, is a young, beautiful American Reporter. This is of course a women because a man would never be described by his attractiveness. And of course they sleep together and of course they fall in love. I was desperately hoping that at some point there would be a plot turn or twist that would justify it. There wasn’t. You could take out all the romance, the sex, all the terms of endearment and it wouldn’t touch the substance of the book. It would maybe take five pages out. What it would do, if you removed it, is make the female character more equal to March. Instead of being his paramour and then his investigative partner, she would be more equal. Her presence would not be about what she looked like, it would be about what she thought, the insights she could provide. Wait, she would more like a male character. A character who is all about a substantive function to the plot and not there to service any male fantasies.
It’s not that I’m against romance. I love romance novels, the trashier the better! Romance has a place in other genres. But here it was just tacked on. It made no sense and, more importantly, it added nothing to the plot, it didn’t serve to further illuminate the characters and their motivations. It was just there because someone, author or editor, couldn’t bear to have a woman in a book who wasn’t sexually available to a man. And that really pissed me off.
I won’t be reading it again and it hasn’t sent me busting down the library door for more Harris either. But it was fun while it lasted. What I’m really craving now is a different take on the world in the presence of a triumphant Third Reich.