The setting is Nazi Germany. The hero: Xavier March of the Berlin Kriminalpolizei, a homicide investigator who doesn’t give the Führer salute, makes jokes about the party, and goes his own stubborn way on murder cases. So when the drowned corpse of a former high-ranking civil servant washes up near Schwanenwerder, the island compound where Goebbels and other top Nazis reside, March chases down every clue doggedly, obsessively. Even after the gestapo begins showing up wherever March’s investigation leads him. Even after he’s ordered to drop the case — which has been designated a ”security matter” — entirely.
A strong premise for a police thriller with rich foreign atmosphere and political texture galore? Absolutely. And if the setup of Fatherland reminds you more than a little of Gorky Park, it should. First-novelist Harris, the British author of Selling Hitler (about those fake Führer diaries that made a splash in the 1980s), seems to have modeled much of his storytelling on Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 murder-in-Moscow best-seller. Still, if something about Fatherland registers as familiar, something else sets it apart. Because the setting isn’t Nazi Germany in the ’30s or ’40s. It’s Nazi Germany in 1964 — 20 years after Hitler conquered Europe, occupied Russia, and arrived at an uneasy truce with the U.S.
Welcome, then, to a historical fantasy. Shrewdly, however, Harris never overworks the what-if possibilities, never plays them for laughs. Hitler doesn’t appear in the flesh; neither does U.S. President Joseph P. Kennedy (JFK’s father) or any other big name. Instead, concretely imagined, quietly convincing details of the postwar German empire are introduced almost casually, and only when relevant to March’s quest.
Above all, the parallel-world gimmick, no matter how fascinating, is never allowed to overshadow Harris’ plot — which is intricate and ominous enough to pull us in on its own merits. The initial murder victim turns out to be just one of several veteran Nazi officials who have recently died or disappeared. There’s a secret cache of looted art treasures from Poland and a mysterious Swiss bank account (opened in 1942), not to mention switched identities, attempted defections, and feuding Nazi underbosses. And ”Zavi” March himself remains a believable and sympathetic accidental hero, more numb than gung-ho, as he finds himself transformed from investigator to interrogation target.
Only in the book’s second half does it become clear that this story had to take place in a Germany that won World War II — a Germany, that is, with the power to cover up its ugliest secrets. Here, of course, Harris is on tricky ground, using one of history’s most monstrous chapters as the central plot twist in a fanciful conspiracy thriller. But, well aware of the risk of trivializing the unspeakable, he works hard to maintain the appropriate gravity, muting some suspense-fiction clichés and avoiding others altogether. The result is a novel much closer in spirit to The Spy Who Came In From the Cold than, say, The Pelican Brief — one that reaches for tragic resonance as well as excitement, and comes up with a fair amount of both. A-