Robert Harris is one of my new favorite authors. His genre? Literary fiction in the thriller/suspense vein. Fatherland is his most celebrated work. But I first read The Ghost.
The Ghost is written in the first person by a ghostwriter who is commissioned by his publisher to help a former British prime minister draft his memoirs. The project has to be completed within a few weeks to meet the publisher’s deadline. Our man, the ghostwriter, must scramble to repair an initial and very unsatisfactory draft, because the first ghostwriter has died—under mysterious circumstances, of course.
The Ghost reads well from the start. It’s immediately engrossing, for someone who likes this sort of thing. The plot is intricate and plausible. The finale is realistic but unpredictable. The narrator is the hero, and since it’s narrated in the first person, that means Harris has to be careful how the hero defines himself for his reader. It turns out, the protagonist is pretty human. He writes books that others get credit for. He’s intelligent but self-effacing. He makes dangerous mistakes, but works his way through trouble. His life is transformed by the events he narrates, but we’re not entirely sure what that means as the story comes to an end. One thing we do know—he doesn’t get the girl. This doesn’t matter. What matters is that readers will not forget what they’ve read.
Ditto for Fatherland. But the possibilities turned up here are more disturbing.
I classify this novel as a counterfactual historical novel. What does that mean? First, it’s based on historical events and real people. The setting is 1960s Berlin. The counterfactual conceit is that Hitler is still in power and is about to celebrate his 75th birthday. Harris considers what might have been, had Hitler survived the Allied invasion.
On the scenario he envisions, the Reich encompasses all of Europe, including England and France. Hitler’s military continues to battle the Russians on the eastern front. He’s negotiated a détente with the United States. President Kennedy—that’s Joseph P. Kennedy, father of John F. Kenney—is paying the Fürher a personal visit to commemorate his birthday. Hitler’s solution to “the Jewish problem” has been almost completely successful, and yet the details about what has happened to the Jewish population of Europe are known only to a handful of high-level members of the Nazi regime.
The story begins with an apparently routine crime scene investigation. Xavier March, of the kriminalpolizei, is dispatched to head the investigation. A corpse has been discovered on the forested edge of the river Havel. The deceased may have drowned accidentally. It may, somehow, have been suicide. The trail of clues suggests homicide.
Homicide it is. But by whom and for what reason? March is determined to find out. Soon he’s embroiled in a plot to cover up dangerous truths. Each turn in the investigation leads to further complication, confusion, and risk to Sturmbannfürher March himself.
Harris’s carefully researched novel reveals the Führer’s ghastly strategy to eliminate the Jewish race. It describes the practical difficulties that had to be overcome in order to make it work. And it envisions a horrific post-war outcome that may well have been realized if Hitler had had his way.
An American journalist collaborates with March. She believes that a public revelation of the facts would lead, sooner or later, to the collapse of a regime built “on a mass grave.” She’s confident that human beings, possessed with the knowledge of what had really happened, would not let it stand. The protagonist, Herr March, is skeptical. But he does know how, as a homicide investigator, to “turn suspicion into evidence.” And he’s compelled to do his part to sort out the nasty business. Whether the damning evidence he finds could change history is another matter.
At one point, March is explaining his theory about what the evidence means. He says, “This is conjecture, you understand?” Robert Harris has given us a suspenseful novel of counterfactual history that is filled with plausible conjecture. The last page ends with a fitting quote from Dante Gabriel Rossetti: “Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been.”