I have to admit, I was a little excited to read Fatherland. It was recommended to me on the basis that it takes place in an alternate history. I am a sucker for alternate histories, so I bit. The premise sounded interesting: what if Nazi Germany had won and survived World War II? What type of society would that be? Just such a nation is set as the backdrop for the story of a detective charged with solving the puzzle of the death of a high-ranking retired Nazi official.
It is unfortunate that the premise doesn’t lead to a truly unique story. Our hero, Xavier March, is a detective in Berlin. Called in to oversee the investigation of a body found in a river, March soon realizes that the death is more than a simple drowning. He makes some quick discoveries as to who the dead man is, learning that he was one of the first high-ranking Nazi officers.
Then he is thrown off the case. This is the first in the cliches embedded in Fatherland. It makes liberal use of the tropes of how mysteries and thrillers work. Despite the cleverness of the setting, Robert Harris merely took his story out of a real-life setting, like Russia, and plugged it into a slightly more interesting place and time. He also has the woman who, at first, hated our hero, but came along and became the only person he can trust. And we have the betrayals by people close to March — all of which were pretty predictable.
Even Xavier March’s feelings toward his own country are relatively predictable. He’s always spurned the nationalistic activities and groups. This makes it easier for him to accept the horrible secrets he later discovers, but it also makes it fairly unrealistic. What person, raised and grown almost entirely in a land full of national and ethnic pride, is likely to be a malcontent? He should, at least, be involved to an average degree. I can’t help but think that, if he were miserable in Germany, he would have found a way to leave in a way acceptable to his government. After all, his son isn’t a pull enough for him to stay once he realizes he needs to leave; he merely was going to give him some money.
I do think, however, that Harris’ setting is remarkable. The way the society is structured is pretty believable. The actions of people — the reporting of others, the shunning of those who don’t make the cut, the sterilization of people thought to have Jewish heritage, the fear of anyone in a uniform, the growth of an underground opposition — these are all clearly divined from what happened in the real (and failed) German Nazi state. There, Harris has found something remarkably terrifying in its potential reality.
In whole, Fatherland‘s setting and society is wonderful. The plot and characters are not. For someone who enjoys the typical mystery thriller, this can, at least, provide for some entertaining and predictable reading. But it almost certainly will disappointing those wanting more out of a book with such amazing promise.