Thinking Aloud: “Fatherland”

Feb. 16, 2015 by Darius 

I recently read Fatherland by Robert Harris. Fatherland is a detective novel with a twist: it takes place in an alternative history 20 years after Germany won World War II.

Xavier Marsh is an investigator for the Kriminalpolizei, the unit of the German SS responsible for everyday detective work and crime solving. When a body is found washed up on the banks of a river outside Berlin, Marsh investigates, but quickly finds his path blocked by the Gestapo. Emboldened to seek the truth despite any possible political ramifications, Marsh delves deeper into the case, where he discovers long-buried secrets from the war that could undermine the foundations of the Nazi regime. Xavier Marsh is a standard detective: beset with demons, his personal life in shambles, and living only for his work, but the reader is rooting for him throughout.

As a detective novel, Fatherland is quite entertaining. However, Fatherland shines thanks to Harris’s richly constructed alternate reality. In his world, Germany was victorious over the Soviet Union, annexing Eastern Europe all the way to the Urals and establishing puppet governments throughout Western Europe. Japan, however, was defeated by the United States. The United States and Nazi Germany acquired nuclear weapons at the same time, and each knew neither could win the war without being itself destroyed. Germany and the US thus settled into a cold war, with the US supporting the remnants of the Soviet Union fighting a guerrilla war against the Nazis. Small details flesh out Harris’s narrative. For example, the crimes of Stalin were enshrined in history as the great infamy of the 20th century because Nazi forces discovered Stalin’s network of gulag prisons as they advanced east into the Soviet Union. Gulags, not former concentration camps, were preserved for the world to see.

For those interested in a good detective story in a thoughtful, provoking setting, Fatherland is an excellent choice.

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