I’ve been fascinated lately with novels that explore alternative histories of the 1930s and 40s. I’ve read about America being overtaken by populist tyrant , electing a Nazi sympathizer, and losing the Second World War and being occupied by the German Reich. Robert Harris’ 1992 novel is the first I’ve read where America hasn’t been the focus, and it provides the most realistic vision of what could have happened in this turbulent era of world history.

For reasons that aren’t altogether clear, Germany is able to capture both Moscow and London in this world. This gives the Nazis control of most of Europe, which is where they stop their expansion. There is no change in the Pacific war, as America defeats Japan with atomic weapons. By 1964, the year in which the novel takes place, Germany and the United States have been in an extended Cold War, similar to what actually occurred between the USA and USSR in our reality.

While the scenario leaves a lot of obvious questions unanswered (how did the Nazis discover the British had deciphered their encoded messages? why did the Russian forces collapse?), this parallel world does seem authentic. Hitler’s ambitions were Euro-centric, and launching an attack across the Atlantic would have left him vulnerable at home. Had Britain fallen, America would have no base to launch an invasion of Europe, and would have focused attention to the war in the Pacific. An extended Nazi regime makes Europe a much different world in this era, while America remains relatively unchanged; not an ideal situation by any standard, but one that seems altogether plausible.

But Fatherland isn’t an alternative history text. It’s a detective story focused on two principal characters, a German police officer with no great love for National Socialism and an American diplomat. They team up to investigate the murder of a Nazi official, and as they dig deeper they discover that the unconfirmed rumors about the fate of Germany’s Jews turn out to be very much true. The pace is steady, the characters engaging, and its conclusion leaves you satisfied yet curious to know what happens next — a rare and pleasing feat.

Of all the alternative histories I’ve read so far, this has been the most satisfying. The audiobook performance by Michael Jayston wasn’t memorable, but didn’t detract from the writing, which is really all you want from a reading.

Summers 2G

“That’s why I got here so late this morning.” Jane Summers walked over to her chair, placed the backpack on the floor, lowered herself swiftly into the seat. She exhaled, shoulder-lenth brown hair drooping over her shoulders as she leaned forward, as if a weight were bearing down on her neck. “Couldn’t find my Unirail pass — ” she shrugged — “couldn’t find Unirail — all I saw were dozens of cars on the street, and buses, goddam buses, billowing diesel exhaust.” She swore, shook her head. “Haven’t seen one of those damn things since they were phased out five years ago.”

“Lemme guess.” Jane looked up at Scott’s smirking face. “This ‘Unrail’ thing made buses obsolete?” Jane nodded. “OK, what planet did — ”

“I think we need to change the focus here.” Gary spoke with authority, making it clear he expected both Jane and Scott’s attention. He leaned across his desk in Jane’s direction. “You say you don’t recognize your phone, didn’t know you had a car, and you think there’s some kind of mass transit system that’s suddenly gone away. But — ” he quickly flicked his right index finger, pointing it between Scott and himself — “you remember us.”

Jane stood up abruptly, raised her hands in the air like a football referee. “Exactly! You’re the same, the other people I saw in the office are the same — this office is in the same location, the houses, most of the businesses I saw when I walked here this morning, they’re the same — ”

Most businesses?” The tone of Gary’s question seemed genuine.

Jane frowned. “There was more gas stations than before.”