Conclave by Robert Harris (2016)

‘No emotion, Ray,’ warned Lomeli. ‘We need to think very clearly.’ (p.330)

The Pope dies in the middle of the night. Heart attack, according to the Vatican doctors. The Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Baldassare Lomeli, Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, is woken in the early hours to confirm the identity of the body and set in train the host of formal procedures prompted by the death.

Immediately we are thrown into the midst of the procedural and political complexities of the Holy City, and quickly ushered into a melee of bustling cardinals and archbishops, and to the monsignors and priests, secretaries, nuns and security men, who staff and run the Vatican.

It turns out that we are going to see the entire story from Lomeli’s point of view. The text is not a first-person narrative, it is a third-person narrative, but it follows Lomeli very closely and continually eavesdrops on his thoughts and feelings as the story unfolds.

This is because, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, it falls to Lomeli to make all the practical arrangements for the conclave which must now be called to elect a new pope – to invite the cardinals to Rome, to organise their accommodation, to supervise the transformation of the Sistine Chapel into a voting chamber, the whole thing. Thus Lomeli is the perfect character to accompany through all these arcane mysteries and also the man best placed to confront and unravel the knotty problems which the conclave, in the event, throws up…

Harris skips over the state funeral of the dead pope, which is irrelevant to his purpose, in order to jump to the moment three weeks later when the conclave of all the cardinals foregathers to elect the next pope. One hundred and seventeen cardinals are called from all over the world to the conclave. The successful candidate must gain two thirds of the votes i.e. 79. If the classic thriller is a question of Whodunnit, Conclave is a Whowillgetit: who will be the next pope?

Factual research and conclave procedure

In fact there are more than 117 cardinals in the world but, back in 1970, Pope Paul VI introduced an age limit: no cardinal over the age of eighty can vote. The procedure was further amended by Pope John Paul II in 1996. Thus only 117 are eligible.

Harris is a former investigative journalist, and the book is heavily loaded with factual information, from an intimate description of the interior of the Sistine Chapel as it is prepared for the Conclave of Cardinals, to a detailed description of the hostel on the south side of the Vatican, the Casa Santa Marta, where the cardinals all stay, with all kinds of scattered insights into the roles of the serving nuns or security police, and so on. Building up an in-depth and persuasive picture of how the place runs.

I was particularly fascinated by his description of the actual process of voting, which is surprisingly straightforward: each of the cardinals has a sheet of paper placed in front of their seat at the benches lined up in the Sistine Chapel and, after some preliminary prayer, they simply write down the surname of the cardinal they’re voting for in big block capitals then fold the piece of paper in half.

Then, one by one, they process up to the altar of the chapel where tellers are waiting, say a short formal prayer, place the folded paper on a chalice and tip the chalice up so the paper falls into an urn, while a secretary counts off their name. When all 117 have voted, the pieces of paper are then counted by one teller, another teller unfolds each one and reads out the name, handing the paper to an assistant who skewers it on a big needle attached to a red thread, so there can be no accidental double counting.

When all 117 have been read out and the votes totted up, the teller announces them, then the pieces of paper on thread are bundled into an oven and burnt.

There is another oven next to it (both being makeshift installations inside the famous chapel) beside which are two piles ‘cartridges’ filled with a chemical mix. After the count, an assistant places one or other of these cartridges into the second oven and ignites it. One produces a billow of black smoke, indicating that a pope has not been elected, the other produces white smoke, indicating that a pope has been elected.

I thought there might be speeches or presentations from the leading candidates but no: they all just vote and the results are read out. Then they traipse back to the Casa Santa Marta where lunch is served amid a hum of gossip and intrigue. And then they traipse back to the Sistine Chapel (or pack into the cheesy little white minibuses which are laid on to take them the half mile or so round the back of St Peter’s, in case it’s raining), troop into the chapel, take their places at the makeshift benches, listen to another prayer, then one by one write out their preferred candidate, walk up to the tellers table, tip their voting slip into the urn, and so on.

Generally, it only takes four or five ballots for a winner to gain the necessary two-thirds majority. In 1978 it took eight ballots to elect Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Kraków, as Pope John Paul II. The rules have changed several times in recent decades but the current rule is that, if the first ballot gives no clear result, there follow four ballots a day, two in the morning, two in the afternoon. Wikipedia gives the full, current procedure:

In Harris’s novel, the process is given a sense of urgency and suspense because Cardinal Lomeli gets unofficial bulletins from the reliable Monsignor O’Malley, ‘Secretary of the College of Cardinals’, about the press speculation going on outside the Vatican, and in reply gives generalised advice for O’Malley to pass on to the Vatican press office.

The set-up

Even as Lomeli is called to the bedside of the dead pope on that fateful evening, he realises that the two or three other cardinals in attendance are already beginning to assert their authority and – gently but firmly – compete for the vacant position.

By the time we’ve jumped forward three weeks to the start of the conclave, the competition is overt and jostling for position among the three or four main contenders has become open. There is worldwide attention – as many as a billion and a quarter Catholics are waiting on the result, as well as every media organisation on the planet.

(The three week delay is to give time for every cardinal around the world to sort out their affairs, and fly to Rome, to get settled in at the Casa Santa Marta, and prepare physically and spiritually for the conclave.)

The media and the cardinals themselves acknowledge the leading candidates, representing the various wings of the church. Most obviously there is a liberal, Secretary of State Aldo Bellini, and a man-of-the-people conservative, the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco.

But there is also the smooth-talking, silver-haired operator, the Canadian Chamberlain of the Holy See, Joseph Tremblay, plus a number of ‘outsiders’, including the African cardinal, Joshua Adeyemi from Nigeria who, if elected, would obviously be the first black Pope.

Revelations

But just as the conclave is about to begin, just as the last of the cardinals arrives at the gate of the Vatican, and the last of the non-essential staff leave in order to ensure there are no distractions and no communication with the outside world (all phones and laptops must be handed over), Lomeli is thrown into turmoil by two revelations:

1. The Polish Woźniak, Prefect of the Papal Household, makes a fearful confession to Lomeli: on the very afternoon of his death the former Pope had summoned smooth Cardinal Tremblay and dismissed him from all his offices i.e. sacked him. Why? Woźniak doesn’t know.

2. Lomeli is still reeling from this revelation when he is summoned back to the gates and told that there is an unexpected cardinal there, one who is not on the official list. How can this possibly be the case? It turns out that Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, was made a cardinal by the dead Pope in his last few weeks, by a process known as in pectore, in his heart’, meaning the Pope didn’t tell anyone else.

This is pretty irregular but not unknown. Pope John Paul II had also created a cardinal in pectore, it was widely thought because the new cardinal was dispatched to work in China, where he had to conceal his identity from the authorities.

In the event the other cardinals take this discovery in their stride, welcoming cardinal Benítez during the first group meal, and he turns out to be a slender, quiet, but popular figure.

The plot

Having set the scene the book then rattles along at a steady pace, mixing factual background about this or that aspect of the voting, with acute insights into Lomeli’s own personal doubts and hesitancies – after the votes and communal meals we follow him back to his spartan quarters where he often prays for guidance, and the reader shares these moments of vulnerability, indeed all his moods – but the driver of the book is the well-calibrated description of the Race To Be Pope.

And, because it is a thriller, you won’t be surprised to learn that there is a steady stream of further revelations which shock and horrify Lomeli, who then has the agonising responsibility of whether to share them with the rest of the conclave and risk the accusation that when he does, he is only doing so in order to sabotage his opponents and place himself in pole position.

And although we are privy to all his thoughts – Lomeli repeatedly tells all the other cardinals, and himself, that he does not want to become pope, he saw what it did to the previous incumbents – nonetheless, as scandal engulfs not one but two of the leading candidates, in each consecutive ballot the vote for him increase, and the reader wonders whether he will, despite all his protestations, end up being elected. Whether, in fact, the man whose inner doubts and worries we have been party to, will turn out to be the next Pope.

But quite apart from his place inside the story, Lomeli plays a far more important function as our eyes and ears into what is going on, providing appropriate explanation whenever needed – and for his pondering over the meaning of the hints and implications which drive the plot.

In fact, slowly and inexorably Lomeli, who is supposed to be a frail 75-year-old Italian cardinal, turns into Hercule Poirot, a slow-moving, thoughtful but acute observer of other people, who puts together various pieces of evidence to piece together the mysteries hanging over the conclave.

Spoilers

Two more revelations dominate the main body of the story.

1. It emerges that the African cardinal, Adeyemi, thirty years earlier had had a brief affair with a very young novice nun and got her pregnant. Now she has turned up, assigned among the nuns who silently and reverently prepare and serve the cardinals’ meals between voting sessions. This middle-aged nun confronts Adeyemi in the canteen in front of all the other cardinals during dinner, and the resulting scandal ends his promising candidature.

But Lomeli is prompted to ask who arranged for this African nun to be transferred at short notice from Nigeria to Rome. And a trail of clues eventually leads him to a further revelation. When Woźniak told him about the former Pope dismissing Tremblay, there was mention of a report into his alleged misdeeds. Where can this report be? Probably among the dead Pope’s belongings. In his apartment. Which is sealed up with plastic ribbon and papal seals.

Well, Lomeli prays for guidance and decides he can’t do nothing, and so in the middle of the night he calmly breaks into the former Pope’s apartment and searches it until – in the tradition of schoolboy adventure stories – he discovers that the old Pope’s massive, antique wooden bed contains hidden compartments. And in these compartments Lomeli discovers the report the late Pope had commissioned which turns out to be a root and branch investigation into the finances of each and every one of the cardinals, with generally shocking results.

But in particular Lomeli discovers indisputable proof that smooth-operator Tremblay had been paying other cardinals to vote for him. This is the sin of corruption or simony.

Not only that, but he discovers it was definitely Tremblay who arranged for the African nun to be brought to Rome to stymie Joshua’s chances! What a schemer! What a crook!

As usual we are given access to Lomeli’s private thoughts as he ponders what on earth to do, before deciding that God has helped him discover all this, and it is not his job to conceal it: if he waits till after Tremblay is elected pope and this all gets out – as, he ruefully reflects, every secret the Vatican has tried to smother for the previous fifty years does, eventually, leak out – think what damage it will do to the institution he has served all his life.

And so he co-opts the assistance of the steely-willed head of the Vatican’s nuns, Sister Agnes, head of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, and between them, overnight, they make 118 photocopies of the dead Pope’s damning report into Cardinal Tremblay’s activities and place one on every seat in the cardinals’ refectory. As they come down to breakfast the next morning, one by one they read it, leading to uproar. In a dramatic scene Tremblay stands, confronts the accusations head on, and claims Lomeli has only done this to sabotage him, Tremblay, and promote his, Lomeli’s, chances of becoming pope.

Which, for a moment, sways the cardinals against Lomeli until the steely little nun Sister Agnes breaks all convention by speaking in the refectory, demanding to be heard, and announces to the horrified cardinals that she can vouch for the fact that it was Tremblay who requested the African nun be transferred to Rome and thereby sabotaged cardinal Adeyemi’s candidature.

After which the tide turns against Tremblay, and he can only stand begging for understanding and denying it’s true as the rest of the cardinals turns their backs on him.

And so, with only eighty pages of this 380-page-long book left to go and the two front runners, Adeyemi and Tremblay, dramatically withdrawn from the race, who on earth is going to win?

Two bombshells

With Adeyemi and Tremblay knocked out, the next ballot puts Lomeli ahead as front runner, though without the necessary two-thirds majority, when there is an abrupt and shocking change in the tone of the book. A car bomb goes off in St Peter’s Square out front of the Vatican. And a suicide bomber blows himself up. And a terrorist goes into a Catholic church in Munich and starts machine-gunning the congregation.

Suddenly, and irrevocably, the rather charming, old-world if intriguing atmosphere of the novel is shattered. If you have any imagination, you can hear the screams of the wounded, the smell of burned flesh, the body parts scattered across the cobbles. For me this sudden eruption of the real world shattered the rather quaint, almost Ealing Comedy era atmosphere Harris had created.

Lomeli finds out what has happened from O’Malley and then, as usual, agonises about whether to even tell the other cardinals. they heard the loud explosion. Indeed some of the stained glass in the lobby of the chapel was blown in, but it is against the rules of the conclave to bring in any extraneous subject – otherwise it would turn into a political talking shop, not a retreat for spiritual meditation.

Eventually, Lomeli decides he will tell the assembled cardinals what is going on (it is, as it has been all the way through, his job to run the conclave, as Dean of the College of Cardinals: that’s why Harris chose him to be the main protagonist of the story).

Once he has it prompts two speeches from the assembled cardinals. First of all the son of peasants, the ultra-conservative Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco, declares that, in light of this atrocity, all the Catholics in the world will be looking for strong leadership. If he’d stopped there he would have seized the meeting, but he unwisely goes on to lambast all the progressive tendencies of the last 50 years, tolerance of homosexuality, of divorced Catholics remarrying, up to and including the mass immigration which has seen countless mosques being built across Italy, home of the Catholic Church, and it s during his tirade against Islam that the first cries of ‘Shame’ and ‘Boo’ are heard.

When he finally sits down, to everyone’s surprise it is the shy, retiring and inexperienced Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, who asks to be heard, and makes an impassioned plea for tolerance and forgiveness. He has tended to Christians dying in Muslim lands and can tell his fellow cardinals that not one of them wanted vengeance. They all died in the spirit of Christ, asking for their murders to be forgiven.

This quiet speech for the first time creates a real sense of religion, of holiness, in the chapel. Lomeli finds himself being lifted by it, and when the next ballot is held he unequivocally votes for Benítez and then listens, dazed, as the votes are counted and the secret cardinal of Baghdad is voted Pope!

But that isn’t the second bombshell. This comes when Prefect of the Papal Household, Woźniak, staggering at the news, asks to take Lomeli aside for a hurried word. Right back at the start of the narrative it had been Woźniak who told Lomeli that the previous Pope had dismissed Tremblay and Lomeli had asked him to do a bit of digging, which led to the revelation that the former Pope had commissioned the report. But Woźniak had also done a bit of digging into Benítez while he was at it.

Back then, three days earlier, he’d told Lomeli that Benítez had been involved in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, been injured but (obviously) survived, and there were some references to him being booked into to go to a clinic in Switzerland, a visit which was then cancelled and here he is at the conclave, having just been voted Pope. But Woźniak has only just had time to find out more, to contact the clinic and discover it is a clinic for gender reassignment.

My God. Lomeli runs through to the small Room of tears where Benítez is already being fitted into the papal robes. They have sent the white smoke out the chimney. Already the crowd in St Peter’s Square is roaring. He is only minutes from making his appearance and his first speech.

Lomeli turfs everyone else out the room and demands Benítez tells him the truth. So he does. Benítez was born with the genitals of a girl, but his parents (like so many parents in developing countries, wanting a boy) raised him and dressed him as a boy and, of course, as soon as he started attending seminary school, and then into the junior priesthood, he didn’t give sex a thought, he didn’t see other men’s genitals, his looked normal to him. It was only when he was injured in the car bomb and went to hospital, that a full inspection revealed he was a woman. He went straight to the former Pope to discuss it, and himself made a booking at the gender reassignment clinic. But then realised this is the way he’s made. This is the way God made him. And this is the destiny God has chosen for him. Who is he to say no to God.

And leaving Lomeli perplexed and bewildered the new Pope continues dressing ready to greet his flock of over 1 billion souls, the first ladyboy to be Pope!

Clichés and clarity

On page one we read a description of cardinal Lomeli making his way at two in the morning to the pope’s apartment.

The Rome air was soft and misty yet already he could detect the first faint chill of autumn. (p.1)

Later on we read that:

Once, in his youth, Lomeli had enjoyed a modest fame for the richness of his baritone. But it had become thin with age, like a fine wine left too long. (p.115)

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a restaurant or hotel lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanation of the byzantine procedures of the Vatican or the latest revelation in the fast-moving plot – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man trained by years in journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake.) But it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to character.

I’ve just read Munich, his thriller set during the 1938 Munich Crisis and the best parts of it, the bits which have stayed with me most, are his documentary descriptions of the actual meetings between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. The personalities of the two male protagonists of the thriller plot pale into insignificance next to the factual content. They are like competent watercolours placed next to an oil painting.

Same here. Lomeli is meant to be Italian, a crusty, 75-year-old, dogmatic, Catholic cardinal of an Italian; just imagine what a rebarbative, rich, gnarly old cuss he must be, and all the sins and corruption he must witnessed, and the decades of in-fighting and politicking he has had to navigate. You’d imagine he would have wildly un-PC views about race, homosexuality, women and so on. Just imagine the depths of cynicism this tottering old Italian must have sunk to, what a monstrous character could have been created.

And yet, in Harris’s hands, Lomeli is a decent chap who thinks in perfectly lucid, grammatically perfect, English sentences. There is no confusion in his mind. He reacts to new information or insights with the thoroughness of a computer, processing them and thinking entirely rationally about what to do next. If he is temporarily at a loss, things soon reappear to him in a cool rational way.

Harris makes a few gestures towards Lomeli’s age, his decrepit body, his wavery voice and the fact that he has difficulty sleeping, but these are all on the surface. Lomeli’s mind is never confused or overcome by bias or prejudice or cantankerous feelings. In fact he hardly has any feeling. Harris gives him ‘moments of doubt’ when he kneels and prays to God for help and advice. But none of these convey any emotion at all, let alone a sense of genuine religious anguish or loss. They are window dressing.

This is because Lomeli is a cipher, a cog at the centre of the plot. In a thriller, the plot is everything, literally everything. Each new development must be communicated in as clear a way as possible so that the reader can share the sense of suspense and thrill and excitement. Any lingering over description or psychology just gets in the way of the slow release of new information to build up suspense.

So Lomeli is given a few superficial trappings of age and experience:

He switched on the stuttering light and checked himself in the bluish glow: front first, then his left side, then his right. His profile had become beaky with age. He thought he looked like some elderly moulting bird. (p.138)

But no real psychological depth, no sense of the countless physical degradations of age or the incredible depth of experience such a man must have. Instead he sounds much like you or me, a decent chap doing a tricky job.

Instead he is Hercules Poirot in the Vatican, on the trail of several mysteries, as the clock ticks on and the conclave votes go by – breaking into sealed apartments, investigating the dead pope’s last wishes, uncovering sin and corruption.

And, at the end of the day, what he uncovers (until the final revelation) is relatively clean and straightforward:

1. Adeyemi had an affair with a pretty young woman which, to most of us, is acceptable and forgiveable. It was a breach of trust and an abuse of his position. But it wasn’t the systematic sexual abuse of under-age boys, which is the real story in the modern Catholic Church. This subject is referred to a couple of times by Harris’s cardinals but is treated very much as something of the past, something that has been dealt with and is behind the church now. Which we know not to be true. The opposite. It shows every sign of growing to really profoundly undermine the Catholic Church forever.

2. Similarly, we learn that Cardinal Tremblay has doled out what appear to be mere tens of thousands of Euros to cardinals to get them to vote for him; but there is no mention of the far, far bigger, scandalous involvements of the Vatican Bank with the Mafia, with organised crime, drugs and people smuggling, and a shadowy network of freemason, which emerged in the 1980s.

In the middle of the book, when not much had been revealed and it is full of dark premonitions, I imagined the big secret would turn out that Tremblay had murdered the Pope because he was uncovering a vast web of financial corruption. It all turns out to be that Tremblay was directing Church funds towards the generally backward and impoverished dioceses of cardinals he hoped would vote for him.

In other words, Harris’s protagonist uncovers ‘scandal’ but it is relatively clean and respectable scandal. Nothing to seriously frighten the horses.

Maybe this is part of the deal he did with the Vatican, whose authorities gave him such full access to the Vatican, even rooms off limits to the public and gave him every help and advice. Maybe in return Harris pledged to keep the ‘scandal’ on the safe side. Or maybe there was no deal or understanding, Harris was just being tactful and polite. Or maybe these relatively minor transgressions were his plan all along.

Whatever the motivation, in his earlier novels, protagonists proceeded from the everyday world and slowly uncovered vast and horrifying conspiracies which underlie it – hence their tremendous grip and excitement. Whereas this ‘thriller’ about the Vatican, in the end delivers ‘revelations’ which are pale and insignificant compared to the actual scandals which have rocked and continue to rock the Catholic Church.

Hence, for me anyway, a tremendous sense of disappointment and anti-climax.

The car bombs

That said, the mildly intriguing narrative is turned upside down by the car bombs which, for me, ruin the tone of the book. they introduce a note of real tragedy and bloodshed which is all to recent and real for a Londoner like me. And all the less necessary as, in the end, their only use in the plot is to provide the opportunity for a speech by the arch conservative which loses him the papacy, and the quiet speech in favour of forgiveness which wins it for Benítez.

And then there is the revelation that the new pope is a woman!

This, for me, reduced the whole thing to an extended joke, with this revelation as the punchline. The climax of Harris’s first and best book, Fatherland, was the revelation of the Holocaust in a Nazi Germany which had won the war and successfully covered its appalling secret. The slow uncovering of the truth and the final scenes of full knowledge, made my hair stand on end with genuine fear and terror.

The last few pages of Conclave did quite the reverse, and make me laugh out loud at its politically correct, bien-pensant, North London liberalism.

Not only have almost all the cardinals all the way through been immaculately correct in their attitude to black and other Third World cardinals, none of them has had a flicker of a thought about women, let alone choirboys (with the egregious, scapegoating exception of Adeyema), and now the result of all this praying by all these decent, upstanding, compassionate old men turns out to be… electing a woman Pope!

Very funny. Very suave. Very slick. But more like a Guardian editorial turned into a novel than his earlier, genuinely gripping, thrillers.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.

1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?

1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.

2007 The Ghost – The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.

2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.

2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

2016 Conclave We follow Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Lomeli, as he supervises the conclave called in the Vatican to elect a new Pope, only to discover a number of scandals which compromise most of the leading candidates, and lead up to a very unexpected result.

2017 Munich A young German civil servant tries to smuggle a key document showing Hitler’s true intentions to his opposite number during the fateful Munich Conference of September 1939, complicated by the fact that the pair were once friends who shared a mistress until she met a terrible fate at the hands of the Gestapo.

Munich by Robert Harris (2017)

Both men fell silent, watching him, and Legat had a peculiar sense of – what was it, he wondered afterwards? – not of déjà vu exactly, but of inevitability: that he had always known Munich was not done with him; that however far he might travel from that place and time he was forever caught in its gravitational pull and would be dragged back towards it eventually. (p.188)

This is another Robert Harris historical thriller, set during the four nailbiting days of the Munich Crisis of September 1938.

In the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book Harris discloses that the crisis had been an obsession with him even before he collaborated on a BBC documentary about it, to mark the 50th anniversary, in 1988, and he hasn’t stopped being obsessed by it. The acknowledgements go on to list no fewer than 54 volumes of history, diaries and memoirs which were consulted in the writing of this book.

And this depth of research certainly shines out from every page right from the start. Even before the text proper begins, the book has an architect’s plan of the Führerbau in Munich where the climactic scenes of the book take place, because it was here that the four key European leaders – Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Britain, Daladier, Premier of France, Mussolini, the Duce of Italy and Adolf Hitler, the Führer of Germany – met to resolve the crisis and here that the various backstairs shenanigans of Harris’s thriller take place.

The Munich Crisis

Hitler came to power in 1933 with promises to end reparations to the Allies (France, Britain, America) for Germany’s responsibility for World War One, and to repeal or turn back the provisions of the Versailles Treaty which had stripped Germany of some of her territory and people.

True to his word, Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland (until then a neutral zone) in March 1936. Two years later in March 1938, he sent German troops to annex Austria, thus creating a Greater Germany.

Next on the list were the ethnic Germans who lived in a strip of territory along the periphery of Czechoslovakia, a ‘new’ country which had only been created by Versailles in 1918. Hitler created a mounting sense of crisis through the summer of 1938 by making evermore feverish claims to the land, and then arranging incidents which ‘proved’ that the Czechs were attacking and victimising the ethnic Germans, blaming the Czechs for their aggression and bullying.

Now France had made formal legal obligations to guarantee Czechoslovakia’s safety, and Britain had pledged to come to France’s aid if she was attacked, so everyone in Europe could see how an assault in Czechoslovakia might lead France to mobilise, Britain to mobilise to defend here, the Poles and Russians to pile in, and it would be exactly how the Great War started – with a series of toppling dominoes plunging the continent into armageddon.

Determined to avoid this outcome at any cost, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew twice to Germany to meet Hitler, on the 15th and 22nd of September. On the second occasion he conceded that Hitler could have the Sudetenland with the full agreement of Britain and France – but Hitler moved the goalposts, now demanding the full dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and the redivision of its territory among Germany and Hungary and Poland (who also shared borders with Czechoslovakia and had mobilised their armies to seize what territory they could.)

On 26 September Hitler made a speech to a vast crowd at the Sportspalast in Berlin setting Czechoslovakia the deadline of 2pm on 28 September to cede the Sudetenland to Germany or face war. In secret, Hitler and the Wehrmacht had a fully-worked-out plan of invasion and expected to carry it out.

However, in a fast-moving sequence of events, Chamberlain sent a message via diplomatic channels to the Fascist leader of Italy, Mussolini, asking him to enter the negotiations and use his moderating influence on the Führer. Mussolini agreed, and sent a message to Hitler saying he was totally on his side but suggesting a 24 hour delay in the deadline in order to further study the problem.

Thus it came about that a conference was arranged in Munich, to be hosted by Hitler and attended by Mussolini, Chamberlain and the increasingly sidelined French premiere, Daladier.

And thus Chamberlain and his staff flew for a third time to Germany, this time to Munich, destination the Führerbau building, and here it was that over a series of closed-door meetings the four leaders and their staffs thrashed out an agreement.

It was signed by the four leaders the next day at 1.30pm. As one of Harris’s characters makes clear, the final agreement, although ostensibly submitted by the Italians, was in fact a German creation which they had given the Italians to present. The main terms were that the German army was to peacefully complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by 10 October, and an international commission would decide the future of other disputed areas.

One of the most famous aspects of the summit meeting was that the Czech leaders were physically there, but were prevented by Hitler’s orders from attending any of the actual negotiations. They were simply forced by France and Britain to accept all the terms and hand over their border area to Germany. Since this was where all their fortifications were built it left the rest of the country defenceless and, sure enough, the German army invaded and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia just six months later, in March 1939.

Map of Czechoslovakia showing the Sudeten territory given to Germany in September 1938 in dark brown

Map of Czechoslovakia showing the Sudeten territory given to Germany in September 1938 in dark brown

All of Europe had held its breath in case the incident sparked the outbreak of another European war. Chamberlain is quoted in the book, in private and then in a famous speech to the House of Commons, saying how unbelievable it is that they all seemed to be galloping towards the apocalyptic disaster so many of them could still remember (the Great War). It was this attitude – avoiding war at all costs – that underpinned Chamberlain’s strategy. And so when he flew to Munich, and even more when he emerged with a face-saving treaty, scores of millions of people all across Europe greeted the avoidance of war with enormous relief, and Chamberlain was feted as a hero.

Of course, in hindsight, we can see that nothing was going to stop Hitler and his maniacal dreams of European domination, and Chamberlain’s policy of ‘appeasement’ grew to have an entirely negative connotation of weakness and cowardice, a policy failure which only ended up encouraging the dictator. And there were plenty of politicians and intellectuals at the time who thought Hitler needed to be stood up to, instead of cravenly given in to, and that Chamberlain had made a great mistake.

That said, there are other historians who point out that neither Britain nor France were militarily prepared for war in September 1938 and that the deal, whatever its precise morality, and despite the unforgiveable abandoning of the Czechs, did give both France but particularly Britain a crucial further year in which to re-arm and, in particular, build up an air force, the air force which went on to win the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. It was only by a sliver that we won the Battle of Britain, thus maintaining the island of Britain as a launchpad for what eventually came the D-Day invasions.

If war had broken out in 1938, Britain might have lost and been invaded (doubtful but possible), America would never have entered the war, and Europe might have become an impenetrable Nazi fortress. Chamberlain certainly didn’t achieve the ‘peace in our time’ which he so hoped for; but maybe he did secure a vital breathing space for democracy. Historians will discuss these and other possible variations for generations…

The thriller

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the real-life, historical diplomacy, it is these hectic days leading up to 30 September, which Harris describes in minute and fascinating detail, and from both sides.

Because the book is made up of alternating chapters, following the parallel experiences of two well-placed if junior civil service figures, one on the Nazi side, one in Chamberlain’s staff.

In London we follow the working routine and then increasingly hectic preparations for flying to the conference of Hugh Legat, Oxford-educated Third Secretary in Chamberlain’s staff, very much the bottom of an elaborate hierarchy of civil servants. Through his eyes we see the bureaucracy of Number Ten Downing Street in action, as Legat interacts with his civil service bosses and Chamberlain himself (and his wife), fetching and carrying papers, writing up notes to meetings and so on.

In all these passages you can sense the intense research Harris has put in to document with meticulous accurately the layout of the buildings, the furnishing of each room, who attended which meeting, what they looked like, their personal quirks and nicknames, what was said, etc, in immense detail.

On the German side, we meet Paul von Hartmann, a junior official in the Foreign Ministry, as he, too, goes about various bureaucratic tasks, again gradually giving us insider knowledge of every personage in the German government, with pen portraits of senior civil servants, military figures as well as glimpses of the Führer himself.

Why these two protagonists? Because Harris places them at the heart of the thriller plot he has woven into the real historical events. We now know that during the Munich Crisis a group of senior figures in the Nazi regime and army met to discuss overthrowing Hitler, if the crisis blew up into full-scale war. Hartmann is one of these conspirators and so, through his eyes, we witness one of their meetings and are party to various panic-stricken phone calls among them as the crisis escalates.

None of the conspirators were western liberals. They hated reparations just as much as Hitler, they wanted to unravel the Versailles treaty, they wanted a strong Greater Germany and they were in favour of annexing the Sudetenland. They just disagreed with Hitler’s approach. They thought his brinkmanship would plunge Germany into a war it wasn’t yet militarily ready to win. And so, if the talks failed and war was declared, they were prepared to overthrow the Nazi regime and assassinate Hitler.

To this end they steal secret documents which show that Hitler had planned not only the Sudeten Crisis, and the full-blown invasion of all Czechoslovakia, but has a deeper plan to invade eastwards in order to expand Germany’s Lebensraum. This ‘incriminating’ document is a memo of a meeting Hitler held with his chiefs of staff back in November 1937. It conclusively shows that the Sudetenland is not the end, but only the start of Hitler’s territorial ambitions.

The documents are handed to Hartmann by his lover in the Ministry, Frau Winter, who is part of the plot and stole it from a Ministry safe. At a meeting of the conspirators Hartmann realises he must pass this document on to the British delegation at the conference, and his fellow conspirators agree.

Thriller tropes

It’s at this point that you enter what could be called ‘thrillerland’ i.e a whole series of familiar thriller plotlines and tropes.

  • First tension is raised as Hartmann takes a train out to a Berlin suburb for the meeting of conspirators, convinced he is being followed or watched.
  • Later he makes a copy of a top secret Nazi document and then bumps into people who, he thinks, are watching him too closely, asking too many questions. Do they suspect?

It is, after all, Nazi Germany, which comes with a ready-made atmosphere of guilt and paranoia.

Hartmann then has to wangle his way into the delegation travelling with Hitler by train from Berlin to Munich for the conference. He manages to do this but at the price of raising the suspicions of his superior, an SS Sturmbahnfūhrer, Sauer, a senior figure in the delegation who from that point onwards keeps a very close watch on Hartmann. When Hartmann takes advantage of a short stop he phones his office in Berlin to make sure that Legat is on the British delegation. His paranoia forces him to find hiding places for both the document and the pistol he has brought with him, leading to heart-thumping moments when he returns to check his hiding places and see if they’re still there.

Why is Hartmann so concerned that Legat be on the British delegation. Because they had been friends once, when Hartmann was on a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where Legat was a student. Now he hopes to use Legat as a conduit to the British Prime Minister.

To this end, back in London and a few days earlier, Hartmann had used contacts in England to anonymously drop off less important but still secret Nazi documents at Legat’s flat in Westminster. Legat hears something coming through his letterbox but by the time he’s gone into the hall, the car with the deliverymen is long gone.

When Legat hands these documents into the authorities, he is called to the office of Foreign Office mandarin Sir Alexander Cadogan where he is introduced to a secret service colonel, Menzies. Menzies questions him and Legat reveals his friendship with Hartmann from their carefree Oxford days back at Balliol College in 1932. They had been very close friends and Legat had gone over to Munich that summer to go on a walking holiday with Hartmann in the mountains.

Menzies judges that Hartmann is obviously a member of the German ‘opposition’ (which British security have heard rumours about) and may wish to communicate with Legat in Munich. Therefore he gets Legat’s immediate superior, Cecil Syers (Chamberlain’s Private Secretary) bumped off the British delegation – much to his anger – and Legat replaces him. But with a mission – to be professional and discreet and do nothing to undermine this vital diplomatic mission – but to be alert to an approach from his old friend and to report back on its contents and intentions. Without wishing to, he has in effect been recruited as a spy.

Legat’s presence enables Harris to give the reader a first-hand account of the Chamberlain entire trip, from packing bags at Number 10, the taxi to Heston airport, the flight, the landing, the official greeting, taxis to the hotel, and then on to the Führerbau for the official reception and then meetings with Il Duce and Der Führer.

The descriptions of all these scenes reek of decades of in-depth research. Which kind of plane, the layout inside it, the sound of take-off, what refreshments were served – all of it is utterly believable but also smells a bit of the study, of the careful poring over dry old memoirs and diaries to recreate every aspect of the scene.

Those 54 books listed in the acknowledgments underpin the detailed descriptions of who was wearing what at the diplomatic reception party which precedes the actual talks, who Mussolini was talking to, what Goering was wearing, even down to the expression on Hitler’s face as he first walks down the grand staircase into the assembled diplomats.

All of it reeks of authenticity and former journalist who has done his research to a T, and all of it makes the book a fascinating account of events – right down to the way that Legat literally stumbles upon the Czech delegation (Foreign Office official Masarik and Czech Minister to Berlin Mastny) being kept in virtual house arrest by SS guards directly under Hitler’s orders – a fact he passes on to his own superiors who filter it up to the PM.

So all these descriptions make it feel like you are there. But as to the thriller plot… for once a Harris thriller failed to really catch light for me. It contains umpteen thriller tropes and moments – we share Hartmann’s stress and anxiety as he hides the incriminating document from the SS man who suspects him – and then tries to give this man the slip once everyone is at the Führerbau, the anonymous men who drop the document through Legat’s letterbox and make off in a car in the dark.

Similarly, from the moment Legat is given his spying mission by Colonel Menzies he certainly feels stiff and self-conscious. A big stumbling block comes when his superiors (not knowing about the mission Menzies has given him) instruct him to stay at the British delegations’s hotel and keep the phone line open to London to report developments, thus stymying his intention of going to the Führerbau and searching for Hartmann. Another uptick in the sense of tension.

But in the end Legat evades this order on a pretext, gets to the big Nazi building, almost immediately sees Hartmann, follows him down backstairs to the basement, out into the car park and then through local streets to a busy Bierkeller and out into the garden where they can talk in secret and that talk… is strangely inconsequential. As in, it doesn’t reveal any really big or new facts.

The crux of their conversation is this: Hartmann and his people want war to break out, so that they can recruit as many high-level German officials as possible to their plan to mount a coup and overthrow the irresponsible warmonger Hitler. This is why Hartmann hands Legat the Nazi memo dating from November 1937 which clearly states that Czechoslovakia is only the beginning of Hitler’s plans. It must be given to Chamberlain in order to make him realise that Hitler is a mad warmonger, and the final invasion of Czechoslovakia and much more will happen regardless of agreement in Munich. Chamberlain must see the memo in order to stiffen his resolve to stand up to Hitler, even if it prompts a crisis, even if it prompts war. Good. That is what the conspirators want. Or, as Hartmann puts it:

‘If Chamberlain refuses tonight to continue to negotiate under duress, then Hitler will invade Czechoslovakia tomorrow. And the moment he issues that order, everything will change, and we in the opposition, in the Army and elsewhere, will take care of Hitler.’

Chamberlain mustn’t sign a peace. If he signs a peace treaty then Hitler will be immensely popular inside Germany as the man who created a Greater Germany without firing a shot: all the waverers Hartmann and the conspirators hope to recruit will fall in line behind him. Hitler will become unstoppable. But, Legat points out, this is all hugely speculative:

Legat folded his arms and shook his head. ‘It is at this point that I’m afraid you lose me. You want my country to go to war to prevent three million Germans joining Germany, on the off chance that you and your friends can then get rid of Hitler?’ (p.297-98)

Which Hartmann has to concede, does sum up his position. And when it is stated like that, not only Hartmann and Legat realise how unlikely the position is… but so does the reader. This could never happen, the reader thinks, with the added dampener that the reader of course knows that it did not happen. At the heart of the book is a little cloak and dagger adventure among a handful of men, boiling down to these two old friends, which doesn’t amount to a hill of beans and doesn’t change anything.

So the old ‘friends’ have met, exchanged the document, and Hartmann has laid his proposition on the line. What happens in the final hundred pages?

Chamberlain refuses the Nazi memo

Both men return to their delegations and tasks which are described with documentary accuracy. But overnight Hartmann sees no sign of change in the British position and he suddenly decides to abandon diplomacy and care for his cover. He shoulders his way into the British delegation, confronts Legat and forces him to take him to Chamberlain’s room.

There Hartmann begs five minutes of Chamberlain’s time and presents him with the 1937 Nazi war plan. Chamberlain reads it and his reaction is interesting, in a way the most interesting part of the book. Chamberlain says it is entirely inappropriate for Hartmann to have pushed in like this; it breaks the chain of command on both sides, and it undermines the present negotiations; because Chamberlain is interested in the present, not what Hitler may or may not have said 6 months, or a year or five years ago. From the point of view of the professional negotiator, all that matters is what your opposite number says in the room, now. What he says and signs up to now supersedes all previous declarations. I thought that was an interesting insight into negotiating tactics as a whole.

Chamberlain reads the stolen memo but rejects it and its contents and asks Hartmann to leave, and then instructs Legat to burn it. It has no bearing on the present.

This is a very interesting scene in terms of being an education in how actual diplomacy and negotiation works, but it militates the entire basis of the thriller. the Big Secret is out. The Key Document has been shown to the Prime Minister. The Secret men and women risked their lives for, cloak and dagger letter drops in London took place for, which Legat was subbed onto the British Legation for and Hartmann played sweaty cat and mouse with his SS boss for – has finally been delivered and… nothing happens. Chamberlain says: I am ignoring it. Burn it.

Oh. OK. Hard not to feel the tension Harris has built up with all the backstairs meetings and SS searches suddenly leak away like the air from a punctured balloon.

Leyna

Throughout the narrative Legat has dropped occasional hints about a woman named Leyna, who made up the third element in his friendship with Hartmann. Only now, towards the end of the book, do we find out more.

A few hours after they’ve both been turfed out of Chamberlain’s office, Legat is fast asleep in his room at the hotel being used by the British, when there’s a knock and it’s Hartmann who tells him to get dressed. Hartmann takes him outside to car he’s (conveniently) borrowed and then drives Legat out of Munich into the countryside, to a village called Dachau and stops outside the barbed wire fence of the concentration camp there.

To my surprise, Legat is not impressed, and says officials in Britain know all about these camps, Stalin has as many if not more but they have to deal with him, too. Hartmann points out that within weeks, if the Nazis annex the Sudetenland, some Sudeten Germans, now free – communists and Jews and homosexuals – will be behind the wire being worked to death at Dachau. Yes, replies Legat, but then how many would survive the aerial bombing and street fighting which will occur if Chamberlain refuses a settlement and prompts war, which will end up with Czechoslovakia still being occupied and victims still being carted off by the SS.

This is an interesting debate but it has now lost the element of being a thriller. For me this felt like a purely cerebral, intellectual debate about what was at stake at Munich.

Anyway, it turns out this isn’t what Hartmann wanted to show him. Some Dachau guards notice the pair bickering in the car and turn the floodlights on them, so our guys beat a hasty retreat and Hartmann then drives Legat on for a further hour until they arrive at a remote mansion in the country with, Legat notices, the windows barred, no notices on the noticeboard in the cold hallway which smells of antiseptic.

Now we learn two things. Harris gives us a flashback to that summer of 1932, when, after walking in the woods, the three friends drove back into Munich and Leyna insisted on going to the apartment block where Hitler lived, surrounded by Nazi bodyguards.

As the would-be Führer (he was famous but had still not been made German Chancellor) leaves the building Leyna shouts loudly ‘NIECE-FUCKER’ at him. This was based on the rumours that Hitler had had an affair with his niece, Geli Raubel, who he forced to live with him in this apartment block and kept a maniacal watch over. In his absence, on 18 September 1931, Gaubl apparently shot herself dead with Hitler’s pistol. Was he having an affair with her? Was she pregnant with his child? Did she kill herself, or was it a put-up job by party apparatchiks who realised her existence threatened the Führer’s career. Whatever the truth (and historians argue about it to this day) there were enough lurid rumours around to allow Leyna to shout this insult at the future Führer as he emerged from his apartment, and to anger his SA guards, some of whom turn from protecting their boss and give chase to Leyna, Hartmann and Legat. The SA guards chase after our threesome who split up in a warren of alleyways.

Legat finds his way back to Hartmann and Leyna’s apartment. In the melee outside the apartment, someone had punched him in the eye and now it is swollen closed. Layna leans over Legat to apply a poultice, and he pulls her head down and kisses her. They make love. It wasn’t crystal clear to me earlier but now the text makes clear that Leyna was Hartmann’s girlfriend. So she has ‘betrayed’ him, and so has his best friend. Thus there is an emotional and sexual ‘betrayal’ at the heart of this plot which is about numerous betrayals, or betrayal on many levels: Hartmann betraying his Führer; Chamberlain betraying the Czechs, and now friend betraying friend. And so on.

This, frankly, felt a lot too ‘pat’ and convenient to me. Formulaic. It had the thumping inevitability of a cheap made-for-TV movie (which is how the book might well end up, since it has none of the really big action scenes required by a modern movie).

Now, in another development which seemed to me equally clichéd, it turns out that Leyna has ended up here in this mournful, isolated care home for the mentally defective. We now learn that: a) Hartmann found out about Leyna’s ‘betrayal’ and they split up b) she got more heavily into communist politics and married a communist who was subsequently killed in the Spanish Civil War, but c) she continued being an organiser of an underground communist newspaper till she was arrested by the Gestapo and badly beaten. Hartmann points out that Leyna was of Jewish heritage (which I don’t think anybody had mentioned earlier). With the result that the SS beat her unconscious, before or after carving a star of David into her back, and then threw her out of a third floor window. She survived in body, but was permanently brain damaged. Hartmann found out, and used his contacts to get her a place here in this out-of-the-way hospice.

This plot development, coming late on in the story, did three things for me:

1. It is a gross and characteristic example of the brutality of the Third Reich i.e. it has the effect of undermining all the diplomats fussing about precedence back in Munich. I think that is its intention, to show you the brutality behind the diplomatic veneer. But it has the unintended consequence, fictionally, imaginatively of making all the rest of the text, with its precise observations of diplomatic procedure, seem pale and irrelevant.

2. Indeed Hartmann picks up this idea, and makes an impassioned speech explaining that this is what he and Legat didn’t realise when they airily debated national Socialism back at Oxford, what their lofty Oxford education didn’t at all prepare them for: for the sheer bestial irrationality of the regime, its violence, which no diplomatic niceties can contain (‘This is what I have learned these past six years, as opposed to what is taught at Oxford: the power of unreason.’ p.374)

3. But I also couldn’t help the feminist in me rising up a bit and thinking – why does this point have to be made over the mute, unspeaking body of a tortured and disfigured woman – for Leyna is brain-damaged and recognises neither Hartmann nor Legat (p.373)?

Why is the central woman in their menage reduced to silence? Is it, in itself, a sort of feminist point, that the entire diplomatic circus, Hitler’s blusterings and Chamberlain’s prissy precisionism and French cowardice, all this describes the world of men, the men who would soon plunge the entire world into a war in which millions more totally innocent women and children would be murdered?

Back in Munich

Hartmann drives Legat back to his hotel in Munich as the last day of the Munich conference, and the novel, dawns.

Legat is shaving when he hears a noise in his bedroom and gets in just in time to see a man exiting by the door into the corridor. This scene reminded me of numerous Tintin books where the hero gives chase to the ‘strange man’ who turns a corner and disappears, leaving our hero to trudge back to his room half-dressed, bumping into a startled member of the delegation on the way.

Back in his room, Legat discovers that he has, of course, been burgled and that the incriminating Nazi memorandum from November 1937, the one which had been stolen and given to Hartmann to show to Chamberlain, who rejected it and told Legat to destroy – well, Legat like a fool hadn’t destroyed it, and he now discovers that whoever was searching his room found it. What an idiot he’s been. He has jeopardised his friend’s life – and all for nothing!

So Legat finishes dressing and goes along to the Prime Minister’s room where he just about persuades Chamberlain to let him (Legat) accompany Chamberlain to his last meeting with Hitler.

Chamberlain has had the bright idea of requesting a one-on-one meeting with Hitler in order to present him with the text of a speech he (Hitler) made a week earlier, in which he had pledged eternal friendship between Germany and Britain. Chamberlain has had his officials convert this speech into a pledge, a declaration, a binding document. He hopes to persuade Hitler to sign it and thus secure ‘peace in our time’.

And now, thanks to Harris’s clever interleaving of historical fact with spy fiction, Legat gets to witness this meeting at first hand, and so do we. We are given the entire scene in which a translator translates into German the couple of paragraphs in which Chamberlain has recast Hitler’s pledge of friendship between Britain and Germany and, to his slight surprise, Hitler signs it.

And now the delegation packs up, catches its taxis to the airport and flies home. It is only as they land that one of the pair of female typists who have accompanied the delegation, to type up the various notes and memos, corners Legat.

As Chamberlain gets out of the plane and holds an impromptu press conference, waving the little piece of paper with Hitler’s signature on it, this secretary tells Legat that she is also a recruit of British Security, tasked with keeping an eye on Legat. And that she had earlier broken into Legat’s bedroom, professionally searched it, found the incriminating memo and removed it; so that the burglar who Legat disturbed, and who ran off down the corridor, did not have the incriminating memo after all. Hartmann is in the clear.

And indeed in the last couple of pages we learn that Hartmann was not arrested by his hyper-suspicious boss, Sauer, and continued to serve the Nazi regime until he was involved in the 20 July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, at which point he was arrested, interrogated and hanged.

Comment

This is a fascinating and deeply researched description of the Munich Crisis which opened my eyes about the details of the actual negotiations and the issues at stake. But despite early promise, the thriller element never caught fire for me. If you come to the book with the mindset that the whole future of Europe is at stake, then maybe you can make every one of the small tense incidents (secret documents, secret meetings) have a vast world-shattering importance.

But I came to it knowing what came afterwards (i.e. the entire conspiracy fails, is completely inconsequential) which continually poured cold water on attempts to get me excited. Even if both the protagonists had been arrested, tortured and bumped off, it wouldn’t ultimately have made any difference, not if you bear in mind what was about to follow i.e. the deaths of tens of millions of people.

For a thriller to work you have to believe the fate of the protagonists is of total, nailbiting importance. But nice enough though these two young chaps seemed to be, the book failed to make me care very much about them.

Shit and fuck

Part of this was because the characters just seemed too modern to me. They seemed contemporary, not creatures from what is becoming a remote past. Legat and Hartmann and many of the other characters completely lacked, for me, the old trappings, the genuinely old and remote mindset of that period – not only its embedded sexism and racism, but the entire imperial and class assumptions of their time and class. When you read fiction written at that time (late 1930s) you are continually pulled up sort by all kinds of period assumptions, about race and sex and class, not to mention that actual vocabulary and phraseology and turns of speech. The ruling class really did say ‘Top hole’, and ‘I say’, and ‘old chap’, and was drenched in expectations of privilege and deference.

None of this really came over in Harris’s book. Instead the characters came over as entirely up-to-date modern thriller protagonists. They think logically and clearly, with no emotion, like computers, uninfluenced by ideology or the beliefs of their era. Hartmann says he is a German nationalist, but nowhere in his conversations with Legat, or in his thoughts which we are privy to throughout the book, does any of that come across. He is a good German nationalist and yet his attitude to the Nazis’ anti-Semitism could come from a Guardian editorial.

There is little sense that these people belonged to a different time, with its own, now long-lost values and assumptions.

A small but symptomatic indication of this was Harris’s use of the words shit and fuck. His characters think ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ in a way you would never find in, say Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh writing in 1938. Hartmann sees roadsweepers and thinks not that they are shovelling up horse droppings, but cleaning horse ‘shit’.

When Hartmann is lying in the bed of his mistress, Frau Winter, he notes the photo of her husband on her cabinet and wonder if she fantasises, when they make love, that she is ‘still fucking Captain Winter’.

The half a dozen times Harris uses the word ‘fuck’ completed the process of making his characters sound like post-1960s, brutally explicit, modern-day thriller protagonists. The use of ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’, for me, not only upset the register of the narrative but begged the bigger question of whether he was at all inhabiting the minds of the people of the day – or simply ventriloquising them from an irredeemably 21st century perspective.

Without a doubt the book is a fascinating account of the nitty-gritty of the Munich meeting, of the nuts and bolts of key events and main players – but it failed for me a) as a thriller, because the Big Secret which is meant to underpin a thriller in fact is revealed a hundred pages before the end and turns out not to matter at all – and b) as a fictional attempt to enter the minds and mindsets of these long-dead people.

All the people felt like they were just waiting to be turned into the characters of another film adaptation, an adaptation in which all the good guys will have impeccably #metoo and politically correct attitudes about everything, who will be fighting for decency as we define it in 2019 – instead of being the much more difficult and potentially unlikeable characters you’d expect to meet from that period.

Munich is an effectively written account of the events, with a clever but ultimately disappointing thriller plot slipped in – but not a very good fictional guide or insight into the lost values and psychology of that remote and ever-more-distant era.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.

1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?

1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.

2007 The Ghost – The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.

2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.

2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

2016 Conclave

2017 Munich A young German civil servant tries to smuggle a key document showing Hitler’s true intentions to his opposite number during the fateful Munich Conference of September 1939, complicated by the fact that the pair were once friends who shared a mistress until she met a terrible fate at the hands of the Gestapo.

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (2013)

At some point I seem to have ceased to be an army officer and become a detective. I pound pavements. I interview witnesses. I collect evidence. (p.185)

The Dreyfus Affair

In December 1894 the French Jewish army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was tried and found guilty of passing French military secrets to the Germans and packed off to Devil’s Island, where he served five years penal servitude in gruelling conditions. But in 1896 evidence began to come to light suggesting the real spy was someone else, and implying that Dreyfus was the victim of a shabby kangaroo court, a victim of the widespread anti-Semitic and anti-German mood of the army. (Not only was he a Jew, he was a rich Jew, moreover his family came from the eastern province of Alsace, which France had lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and had stayed there instead of fleeing the enemy, as ‘good patriots’ had done.)

Slowly pressure mounted for a retrial and the Dreyfus case became a lightning rod for the divisions which had divided France since the 1789 revolution – with right-wing, pro-Army and generally Catholic forces on one side, convinced there was some German, Jewish conspiracy to undermine France and her patriotic virtues – opposed to liberal, freethinking, anti-militarists on the other side, equally convinced the whole thing was a travesty of justice, an example of military high-handedness, a blatant cover-up of incompetence at the highest levels.

The whole affair dragged on for over a decade, with Dreyfus released from Devil’s Island and accepting a pardon in 1899 but battling on to establish his innocence, securing a re-investigation in 1903, then a retrial in 1904, which led to his complete exoneration and his restoration to the army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1906.

Harris has written a long, detailed and gripping recreation of the affair. It opens dramatically with Dreyfus being paraded in front of a baying mob of 20,000 Parisians and several army divisions, having his conviction publicly read out, his epaulettes torn off, his sword smashed in two, then dragged off to prison and a long sea voyage to his incarceration in the hellhole of Devil’s Island.

Georges Picquart

Harris has soaked himself in the history of the affair and the culture of the period – as the Afterword listing the works of reference he used amply indicates – and he manages to involve us in the convoluted series of conspiracies and investigations, which helps to make this book itself his longest (at 478 pages).

I was daunted by this sheer size and by the notorious complexity of the subject matter, but ended up being so gripped by Harris’s treatment that I read it late into the night and ended up wondering if it might be his best, and most gripping, novel – which is saying a lot after the compelling thrills of Fatherland, Archangel and Enigma.

It is a minor miracle (partly indebted to the historical facts, partly to Harris’s grasp of its complexity) that he has managed to identify and use the consciousness of just one first-person narrator to take us through the elaborate events and legal processes which is what the affair consists of.

This central character is Major (soon to be promoted Colonel) Georges Picquart, a bachelor of 40, who was a real historical figure right at the heart of the affair – present at Dreyfus’s arrest, tasked with reporting the first, secret, trial directly to the Minister for War, as a result promoted to head the Statistical Section (a secret intelligence section of the army’s intelligence division, the Deuxième Bureau) which had in fact gathered much of the evidence used against Dreyfus.

Here he slowly assembles the documents, the forgeries, the testimony from witnesses, which gradually cohere to suggest that Dreyfus was not guilty, that the real spy passing secrets to the German military attaché, von Schwartzkoppen, was an arrogant, loose-living officer named Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, and that Dreyfus was elaborately framed by a cabal of officers and their superiors who wanted to find a scapegoat and hush up the initial spying allegations quickly with oh what dire and unintended consequences.

Thus we witness all the key opening scenes through Picquart’s eyes – Dreyfus’s arrest, trial, and his big set piece humiliation in front of baying crowds. Because of Picquart’s position he also reads the pitiful correspondence between Dreyfus – with its harrowing descriptions of his solitary confinement in the tiny rocky islet in the Atlantic – and his poor wife, Lucie, left looking after their two young children. Picquart’s superiors are the Head of the Deuxième Bureau, of the General Staff and the War Minister himself, who we get to observe close up on numerous occasions, just a few among the cast of scores and scores of historical personages that Harris brings to life with astonishing attention to detail and verisimilitude.

And then we follow Picquart into the minutiae of the various investigations and surveillances he runs, and experience with him the sense of doubt, then suspicion, and then horrified certainty as he realises the French Army has convicted the wrong man and let the real spy go free. We follow his attempts to alert his superiors to what he has discovered, only to find them cold and unresponsive – either because they were directly involved in the original frame-up or because they realise that admitting it will expose the army to ridicule, and that the most senior figures – the head of the General Staff, the war minister himself – will be compromised.

After refusing to obey direct orders to close his investigations, after refusing to stop gathering evidence against Esterhazy, Picquart is finally unceremoniously shipped to a remote dumping ground in colonial Tunisia, transferred to an infantry brigade, and, when the result of his investigations start to leak into the newspapers, becomes an outcast among his brother officers, a traitor, a Jew-lover.

After putting up with the Tunisian heat and boredom for 6 months he makes a momentous decision, returns to Paris incognito, and hands over a detailed dossier of all the evidence to an old family friend, seasoned lawyer Louis Leblois, who himself hands it over to the Vice President of the French Senate, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner.

Back in Tunisia, Picquart watches from afar as a big political and press campaign begins to roll to get the Dreyfus case reopened.

But his superiors are almost certain he is responsible for the leak and soon he is himself subject to crude intimidation and then cunningly framed by the very staff in the Statistical Section who he used to manage. He is summoned back to Paris and tried using evidence – letters and telegrams – which have all been concocted to make it seem like he himself is a dangerous spy, and spends a long time in various prisons in and around Paris, trying, like Dreyfus, not to go mad.

Meanwhile the army ransacks his apartment, exposes his affair with a married woman – thus ruining her life – sets up another stage-managed trial to incriminate him, and generally abuses its power in every way conceivable to frame another innocent man.

In the final section Picquart loses all illusions about  his enemy, and openly collaborates with a committee of the Dreyfus supporters who now call themselves ‘Dreyfusards’, including the left-wing politician and future French Prime Minister George Clemenceau and the novelist Émile Zola. It is in January 1898 that Zola publishes his famous front-page article J’Accuse, for the first time naming all the guilty men Picquart has assembled information about, minutely detailing their roles in the various fabrications and cover-ups – a historic publication which only manages to get him arrested and tried for libel.

Right to the end of these tortuous proceedings, investigations, trials, retrials, conspiracies and incarcerations, Harris keeps up the totally addictive grip of his fast-moving, factual but beautifully paced narrative. I couldn’t put it down.

Pace and empathy

Why are Harris’s novels so compulsively readable? It’s a long book – 484 pages in the Arrow paperback – but it flies by, even with its freight of historical, legal and cultural complexity.

It’s due to at least two things: Harris’s clear, readable and attractive prose, and his very canny pacing of the way the central ‘secret’ – Dreyfus’s innocence, the identity of the real spy – is revealed.

In fact, this central structure of the ‘slow reveal’ is identical to the ones he used in his earlier thrillers: Fatherland where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence which leads to the revelation of the Holocaust, Archangel where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence which leads to the revelation that Stalin had a son and heir who is still alive, Enigma where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence that there is a traitor at the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre.

The fundamental journey is the same but the pleasure is in Harris’s tremendous skill at surprising the reader with carefully placed clues and insights. Somehow Harris takes you completely into the mind of his protagonists so that, although the reader knows in advance that there was a Holocaust and that Dreyfus was innocent, we still share the same growing suspicion, shock and horror as the central figure.

Even when, by half way through, the ‘secret’ is out and Picquart is fully convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence, he still manages to grip the reader by having us so fully on the side of his hero: as he anxiously waits in his Tunisian exile for events to develop, as he journeys alone and scared to Paris, as he has secret meetings with his lawyer friend, and then through all the rigours of his own arrest, imprisonment, rigged impeachment and further incarceration.

By this stage we are nearly as angry as Picquart, not only with the injustice of Dreyfus’s imprisonment, but with the combination of crude blundering and blackmail masterminded by his craven army superiors and their pawns and agents. And this anger, and an anxiety to see how and when the truth prevails, become the driving force of the reader’s involvement.

Style

I’ve noted in my reviews of other Harris’s other thrillers, that he varies his style to suit the subject matter and period: Enigma used a prose style just slightly tinged with 1940s slang and phraseology; The Ghost skillfully captures the middle-brow, humorous, self-deprecation of an easygoing modern-day jobbing author; The Fear Index is rich with terminology from the computer science and financial markets which are its setting.

Similarly, An Officer and A Spy mostly functions with what you could call Basic Thriller Style, a curt clipped statement of the facts.

We take a taxi across the river and I pay off the driver just south of the École Militaire. The remainder of the journey we complete on foot. The section of the rue de Sèvres in which the hotel stands is narrow and poorly lit; the Manche is easy to miss. It occupies a narrow, tumbledown house, hemmed in between a butcher’s shop and a bar: the sort of place where commercial travellers might lay their heads for a night and assignations can no doubt be paid for by the hour. Desvernines goes in first: I follow. The concierge is not at his desk. Through a curtain of beads I can see people eating supper in the little dining room. There is no escalator. The narrow stairs creak with every tread. (p.403)

After a while I realised that the very fact that he is a soldier adds a slight but detectable extra amount of curtness and clippedness. He is a military man used to thinking in terms of fact, figures, orders and instructions, and a Frenchman trained in clarity and logic.

But this is combined with Harris’s marvellous gift for selecting just the right detail to convey a scene or character. There is a tremendous economy to his writing and an impressive tact: just so much, just what is needed to paint a scene, and no more.

The following Thursday evening, at seven precisely, I sit in a corner of the cavernous yellow gloom of the platform café of the gare Saint-Lazare, sipping an Alsace beer. The place is packed; the double-hinged door swings back and forth with a squeak of springs. The roar of chat and movement inside and the whistles and shouts and percussive bursts of steam from the locomotives outside make it a perfect place not to be overheard. I have managed to save a table with two seats that gives me a clear view of the entrance. (p.109)

The present

Another very distinctive aspect of the narrative is that it is all in the present tense.

It was a considerable risk to do it this, as a narrative told in the continuous present can appear pretentious or stilted in the wrong hands. But Harris really is such a brilliant and intelligent writer that it works entirely as he intends it to, by creating a permanent present in which the narrator – like the reader – has no idea what is going to happen next. It adds tremendously to the tension and anxiety of the book, continually driving you on every page to experience the hero’s doubts and anxieties.

For several minutes I sit motionless, holding the photograph. I might be made of marble, a sculpture by Rodin: The Reader. What really freezes me, even more than the matching hand-writing, is the content – the obsession with artillery, the offer to have a manual copied out verbatim, the obsequious salesman’s tone – it is Esterhazy to the life. (p.162)

We sit with him. We are holding the new evidence, transfigured by its implications. 479 is a lot of pages to keep up this balancing act, but Harris does it brilliantly.

The hero as modern man

Coming to this novel after reading a series of Alan Furst’s historical spy novels prompts the thought that what Furst’s and Harris’s novels share is the essential amiability of the central characters.

Compare Georges Picquart with Fredric Stahl, the protagonist of Furst’s 2012 novel, Mission To Paris. They are both good eggs. Furst’s hero is as immune to the prejudices of his time (the 1930s) as Georges Picquart is to those of his (the 1890s).

For example, both of them are repelled by anti-Semitism. This was an extremely common prejudice throughout Europe, at all levels of society until well past the Second World War. Harris’s and Furst’s novels testify to this, the Harris novel tracking the rise of virulent anti-Semitism as the Dreyfus case drags on. And yet both these heroes don’t have a prejudiced bone in their body. They never give in to even the slightest racist thought for even a second. Not even in their darkest moments. In this respect, they are whiter than white, politically correct. Their instinctive revulsion from and contempt for the anti-Semitism of those around them withstands the toughest scrutiny of the modern liberal reader.

Similarly, both of them are immensely respectful of women; never let slip a sexist comment, don’t belittle women in word or deed; indeed, they both have the same kind of sensuous, smoochy affairs with women that require or imply that the women in their lives are themselves highly sexually aware, ‘modern’ and ‘liberated’ ie surprisingly anticipating modern attitudes.

Furst and Harris heroes are, in other words, modern men who reflect very accurately the most advanced, enlightened thinking of the 21st century – transplanted back into the clothes of a man in 1938 and 1895, respectively. If you actually read novelists from 1938 (Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene) let alone 1895 (Thomas Hardy, Henry James) you quickly discover they:

a) thought and wrote in a much more convoluted and less factual style than we do
b) were casually racist and sexist, not to mention snobbish, elitist and intolerant, without realising they’d said anything wrong – because those were the common values of the time
c) were very tight-lipped about sex, if mentioned at all

Not only that, but Picquart is winningly cultured and civilised. Harris goes out of his way to make him a man of culture, who knows a particular Paris church is famous because Saint-Saens plays the organ there, and who attends a performance of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune conducted by the composer himself, a man who whiles away boring journeys translating Dostoyevsky novels from the original Russian.

A mark of his urbanity and his ability to rise above petty mindedness (unlike so many of those around him) is his sense of humour.

Outwardly, I hope, I wear my usual mask of detachment, even irony, for there has never been a situation, however dire, even this one, that did not strike me as containing at least some element of the human comedy. (p.355)

Finally, and – crucially – these heroes are much the same at the end of the book as they were at the start. This is what keeps thrillers, by and large, from being considered ‘literature’. The characters undergo little real change. Picquart sees a lot, and tells us he experiences a lot, but he still uses the same snappy, confident, urbane tone at the end of the book as at the start. He’s learned a lot but is still essentially the same guy.

An indication of this lack of development comes right at the end of the novel. The payoff, the epilogue, the conclusion could have drawn a number of wide-ranging points from Dreyfus’s story: for example, what it tells us about the divided nature of French society, about French defeatism before the Great War (and indeed the Second World War), about the widespread presence of anti-Semitism in even an ‘enlightened’ Western nation, and so on.

Instead of opening up into historical perspectives, though, Harris deliberately and, I think, a little disappointingly, focuses the story right down to a Spielbergesque final moment.

In the epilogue (and, amazingly, this is true) the shamed Picquart, once a complete outcast from the French army has himself ended up becoming French Minister for War, and is asked for an interview by the newly restored Lieutenant Colonel Dreyfus. Both men are embarrassed as Dreyfus, finally, after their long odyssey together, says thank you. Picquart says shucks I could never have done it without you. Dreyfus replies, ‘No, my general, you did it because it was your duty.’ (p.479)

In other words, this final scene, for all the brilliance of the preceding pages, I think emphasises the essentially simple psychology, the innocence and apple pie goodness, of Harris’s hero. He and the reader have been on an extraordinary journey of investigation and understanding – but he is as solid, noble and conscientious at the bitter end as he had been at the innocent start.

What the thriller can tell us

Thus, lack of character development is one of the most obvious drawbacks of ‘the thriller’ as a genre, even very good thrillers like Harris’s.

But that said, thriller can do lots of things which more ‘serious literature’ can’t. They can have more breadth of character, range of incident, more extreme situations. Above all the thriller is interested in violence, fear, paranoia, surveillance, suspicion, enemies and the mindset which copes with constant threat, continual alertness and planning. It exercises ‘the predator mind’. And these, regrettably, are situations a lot of ordinary literature-reading people found themselves suddenly thrown into throughout the terrible 20th century.

So many of the thrillers I’ve read over the past two years self-consciously refer to the fact that this or that situation could be straight out of a shilling shocker, or cheap thriller or Hollywood movie – as if by confronting the fact that they’re using conventional thriller clichés and stereotypes they can somehow overcome it. Harris says something more interesting. As the narrator gives his lawyer a letter to be opened by the president of France ‘in the event of my death’, he is aware of how silly the situation is.

I suppose he considers it melodramatic, the sort of device one might encounter in a railway ‘thriller’. I would have felt the same a year ago. Now I have come to see that thrillers may contain more truths than all Monsieur Zola’s social realism put together. (p.303)

Thrillers deal with people plunged into extreme situations and, for all their obvious shortcomings, people are in fact plunged into extreme situations every day, and thrillers do tell some kinds of truths, not subtle truths about human nature, maybe; but truths about the human mind and the desperate measures it sometimes has to resort to.

Implications

As referred to, Harris is a writer of great intelligence and forensic ability, a lawyer or journalist’s ability to grasp the detail of a very complex subject and rewrite it in an orderly, comprehensible and indeed gripping way.

I mentioned the economy and tact of his style, above. But there is also the economy and tact of his entire approach. Although I don’t quite like the sentimental ending when Dreyfus and Picquart finally shake hands, I do like what Harris doesn’t do: he doesn’t preach. He doesn’t draw the umpteen conclusions he could have about Dreyfus being one of the first political prisoners, or a victim of a state cover-up, or about the ineptness of spy agencies or the stupidity of so much military ‘intelligence’, or the broader historical echoes: Dreyfus was a kind of proto-martyr for what would become a flood of state-sponsored show trials in totalitarian Germany and Russian in the 1930s and in other authoritarian countries since.

Instead the eerie anticipations of later regimes are left entirely to the reader to pick up. He compliments his reader’s intelligence with his restraint. Just the use of the word ‘dossier’ to refer to all the made-up evidence against Dreyfus is enough to remind the reader of the ‘dodgy dossier’ containing the ‘sexed-up intelligence’ which helped take the UK into America’s invasion of Iraq. This and other fleeting pre-echoes and premonitions are left entirely for the reader to detect, or not.

Subtlety. Tact. Discretion. These are just some among Harris’s many wonderful gifts as an unmatched writer of intelligent historical thrillers.

Dramatis personae

  • Alfred Dreyfus, captain in the French army, Jewish, wealthy, aloof, when some documents which imply that someone is passing French military secrets to the German military attaché are discovered by the French Deuxième Bureau, he is framed, evidence is twisted and handwriting experts are suborned to blame the entirely guiltless Dreyfus, who is tried in a secret military trial, convicted to life imprisonment, ritually stripped of military honours in front of a vast Paris crowd, and shipped to a tiny rock off the South American coast where a tiny prison and contingent of guards is kept solely to keep him in solitary confinement, with no letters or books, for five years.
  • Lucie Dreyfus, his wife, Pierre his son, Jeanne his daughter
  • Mathieu Dreyfus, his brother who leads the campaign for his release
  • Bernard Lazare, Jewish journalist the
  • Major then Colonel Georges Picquart
  • Anna, his older sister
  • Pauline Romazotti, grew up near the Picquart family, now married to Philippe Monnier, official at the Foreign Ministry, with whom Georges is having an affair
  • Louis Leblois, old schoolfriend and lawyer
  • Aimery de Comminges, baron de Saint-Lary
  • Blanche de Commanges, one of Picquart’s lovers
  • General Charles-Arthur Gonse, 56, Chief of French Military Intelligence (p.29)
  • General Mercier, Minister of War, to whom Picquart reports back an eye witness account of the Dreyfus kangaroo court
  • President Casimir-Perier, president of France
  • Major Henry, official in the Statistical Section of the Deuxième Bureau, a red-faced often drunk man who, it emerges, played a key role in framing Dreyfus
  • Captain Lauth of the Statistical Section
  • Monsieur Gribelin, the spidery archivist of the Statistical Section
  • Colonel Sandherr, Picquart’s predecessor as head of the Statistical Section ie he oversaw the faking of the evidence which framed Dreyfus
  • Jean-Alfred Desverine, young Sûreté officer Picquart gets seconded to his Statistical Section
  • Ducasse, young officer Picquart sets up in a rented flat opposite the German embassy in Paris to record comings and goings
  • Moises Lehmann, forger Picquart uses
  • Guénée, Statistical Section operative who has been assigned to surveil the Dreyfus family
  • General Foucault, French military attaché to Berlin
  • Armand du Paty de Clam, instrumental in forging evidence implicating Dreyfus
  • Operation Benefactor, the surveillance operation on Esterhazy instigate by Picquart
  • General Billot
  • General Boisdeffre, Chief of the French General Staff
  • von Schwartzkoppen, German military attaché in Paris
  • Alessandro Panizzardi, Italian military attaché in Paris
  • General Leclerc, Picquart’s commanding officer in Tunisia after he is transferred to the 4th Tunisian Rifles
  • Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, Vice President of the Senate to whom Picquart’s friend, the lawyer Leblois, gives Picquart’s dossier proving that Esterhazy is the spy and Dreyfus innocent
  • Colonel Armand Mercier-Milon, old friend of Picquart’s who is tasked with escorting him from Marseilles to Paris and there keeping him under guard
  • General de Pellieux, tough soldier leading the investigation into Picquart’s alleged treason and alleged fabrication of evidence against Esterhazy

Credit

An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

The Fear Index by Robert Harris (2011)

As most of you will be aware, the Chicago Board of Exchange operates what is known as the S and P 500 Volatility Index, or VIX. this has been running, in one form or another, for seventeen years. It’s a ticker, for want of a better word, tracking the price of options – calls and puts – on stocks traded in the S and P 500. If you want the math, it’s calculated as the square root of the par variance swap rate for a thirty-day term, quoted as an annualised variance. If you don’t want the math, let’s just say that what it does is show the implied volatility of the market for the coming month. It goes up and down minute by minute. The higher the index, the greater the uncertainty in the market, so traders call it “the fear index”.’ (p.115)

This is a very good, very intelligent novel, but the least satisfying of Harris’s five thrillers. Of course there’s a plot, but the plot is spread out among a number of characters – about four main ones; it includes a number of flashbacks and memories to earlier events, which pad out, slow or stop the momentum; and above all, it is heavily themed in a way I didn’t find totally convincing.

The plot

Multi-millionaire American banker Dr Alex Hoffmann is woken in the middle of the night in the high-security, $60- million home he recently bought near the shore of Lake Geneva, to realise there’s an intruder in his house. Someone has got past the 9-foot fence, the locked gates and through the password-protected door, to rummage around in the razor sharp knives in his kitchen. This is where Alex disturbs him. Next thing he knows, he is coming round as the police and his distraught wife revive him. He was clobbered with a fire extinguisher and, as well as a lot of blood, has lost some mental function so that he’s struggling to remember what happened.

He is taken to hospital where he has a CAT scan. This reveals no major damage but the consultant points out a number of white dots on the scan: could be tiny blood leaks but could be other things, for example early signs of dementia. Scared, Hoffmann refuses a follow-up MRI scan and also refuses advice to stay in hospital for 24 hours. He has a busy day ahead of him, and so does the reader, for the events of this 390-page novel take place over the course of one frantic day.

Hoffmann goes to work, meets up with his partner Hugo Quarrel and then plays a key part in his company’s presentation to, and then lunch with, a group of seriously rich investors in his fund. But the day is interrupted by a number of quirks and oddities:

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Someone has sent him a first edition of Charles Darwin’s classic book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), and put the bookmark of the seller in the section about fear, which is full of explanations of the evolutionary origins of fear, and also Victorian photos of human specimens exhibiting fear. But who? He asks his wife, he asks his partner – they both say it wasn’t them. Finally he phones the bookseller, in Belgium, and is nonplussed to be told that he bought the book for himself, via email, and using an account in the Cayman Islands. What?

The figure of fear

In the taxi from the hospital, Hoffmann is shocked to see the man who attacked him in his house sitting at the back of a passing tram, a thin, older man with a ponytail of grey hair. Not only is his shock renewed, but the sighting confirms his impression that the man looks like one of the illustrations from the Darwin book! What is going on?

Gabby’s exhibition

Later that morning he attends the opening of an art exhibition devoted to the works of his beautiful English wife, Gabby. Hoffmann is nervous as he doesn’t really like people, let alone large groups of rich people all bitching at cocktail parties. But he’s not as nervous as Gabby, who’s first proper show this is. The works are all based on one technological idea: MRI scans show the inside of the body, the brain, organic bodies, as layers. Gabby had the idea of printing each successive layer of selected MRI scans onto thin sheets of glass which she suspends above each other, creating a sliced 3D image. She’s done images of a human brain, a body, a foetus, each sliced into glass wafers.

But, for the purposes of the story, the point of this long scene is that the gallery owner, at its climax, goes round and sticks a red sticker on each work indicating that it’s been sold. Everyone expected some to go (Gabby was nervous that none would be sold), but all of them? It is unlikely, improbable, and even embarrassing. It makes it look like a stitch-up and, importantly, means that none of Geneva’s great and good, all elaborately invited to the show, even have a chance to buy one.

Puzzled and, in some cases, insulted, well before the gallery owner has finished placing the stickers, the crowd has begun to drift away. Gabby is furious and has a stand-up row with Hoffmann, convinced that he bought them in a cack-handed attempt to be ‘romantic’ or ‘generous’, but in fact humiliating her in front of ‘everyone who is anyone’. He swears he didn’t, but she runs off, furious.

Gana’s worries

Upset and confused, Hoffmann takes a cab back to the shiny offices of Hoffmann Investment Technologies just in time for the scheduled presentation to the assembled investors. The core of the presentation is Hoffmann’s explanation of the algorithm his company uses to assess the market. Named VIXAL-4, it is tasked with identifying signs of anxiety or fear in market sentiment, and then ‘shorting’, ie selling stocks or other securities or commodities in advance of acquiring them, with the aim of making a profit when the price falls. (Before the presentation, his small management team, particularly the Risk Manager, Gana Rajamani, try to buttonhole Hoffmann with their fears that the VIXAL program is buying too many shorted stocks, thus going beyond acceptable defined risk thresholds, but he brushes them aside.)

Hoffmann’s presentation

Hoffmann’s presentation is, in a way, the author’s message, as he gives a brisk summary of philosophical thinking about humankind, which emphasises risk, fear and anxiety. Anyone who can master and control this emotion, can control the world. VIXAL-4 is only an algorithm but it is the smartest yet created for identifying risk and fear, and then co-ordinating buying activity, in anticipation of market falls in value and prices.

Fear then murder

As the presentation draws to a climax Hoffmann sees out the window, at a bus stop opposite, the thin, pony-tailed man who attacked him. He interrupts his presentation to bolt out the door, run down the stairs, out into the street and follow the man as he disappears down an alleyway. He chases through narrowing streets until he realises he is in the seedy brothel district, and is astonished to get a text giving an address. When he tentatively gets to the address, and climbs the stairs and opens the door, he is, sure enough, greeted by the lank, grey-haired assailant, who immediately tries to attack him. There is a prolonged and gruesome struggle, with the assailant repeatedly attacking, until Hoffmann, overcome by fear and anger, throttles him to death. He ties shoe laces round his neck and hangs the corpse from a wardrobe door in a feeble attempt to dress the murder up as a suicide. Then he turns on the laptop the man had – and is horrified to read extensive extracts around the idea of a willing victim searching for someone to murder them via the internet – and to emails which appear to have been sent by him directly to the attacker, asking him to kill him. Like the Darwin book he never ordered. Like Gabby’s artworks he never bought.

The conspiracy

By this stage I think it is a slow reader who hasn’t realised that the computer programme is out of control and is clearly mimicking Hoffmann’s behaviour – or putting into action his deepest wishes. Hoffmann, being slower on the uptake than the reader, thinks that someone is out to get him – a real person or rival is trying to frame him or drive him crazy.

Walton’s story

This hypothesis is reinforced by a separate plotline concerning a former colleague of Hoffmann’s at CERN the physics research institute where Hoffmann originally worked. Out of the blue this man, Professor Robert Walton, turned up at the exhibition of Gabby’s art works. Hoffmann denies he invited him but Walton claims he emailed him personally. Now the distraught Gabby takes Walton up on an open invitation to visit him at CERN.

Here she gets the visitors’ tour and some history of CERN, dedicated to unravelling the mystery of the smallest sub-atomic particles etc. For the purposes of the novel, though, she hears Hoffmann’s backstory for the first time: namely, that he was recruited in the mid-1990s as a keen young PhD student, and immediately applied himself to devising programs to handle the vast trillions of data points which the experiments were producing. He developed a computer program which was capable of identifying which data was significant, and learning from its experience. As you might expect, the program began to spread beyond its initial host computers, learning by experience how to overcome firewalls and jump into other systems, until the CERN authorities eventually shut it down and terminated Hoffmann’s line of work. He had worked 20 hour days for months and, unable to accept that his baby was being destroyed, had a massive nervous breakdown and was sacked from CERN.

Good God, Gabby thinks. Is Hoffmann now in the grip of another mental collapse? Has part of his mind done all the mystery acts – ordered the Darwin book, bought all Gabby’s art, and so on – while the conscious part of his mind is completely unaware, and even denies it?

Hoffmann’s therapist

Craziness is confirmed as a possibility when we follow Hoffmann to another part of the city where he reluctantly knocks on the door of the psychotherapist who treated him when he had a nervous breakdown 6 years earlier. Dishevelled, bleeding from his head wound and bruised from the savage fight in the seedy hotel room, Hoffmann presents a threatening appearance which he doesn’t improve by, after initial polite conversation with the lady psychiatrist, pushing her out of the way so he can access her records on him. There he is horrified to find that, in their most secret confidential sessions, he spoke of his deep desire to end it all by being murdered in exactly the same words which were used in the emails to his mystery attacker. Someone must have hacked into the psychotherapist’s records, cut and pasted his words, and gone trawling the internet for an assassin. My God, someone really wants to kill him. Hoffmann hears the psychotherapist’s staff calling the police, and barges his way out of the building and into a cab.

Who put them under surveillance?

When Hoffmann arrives back at the HIT offices, looking terrible and sounding like he really is having a nervous breakdown, he has a brainwave. The screensaver on the attacker’s laptop shows him, Hoffmann, leaning back in his plush expensive chair in his office. Suddenly he realises it was taken from a spot directly above him in the ceiling. Appearing utterly frenzied and mad to his terrified partner, Hugo, Hoffmann stands on a chair and rips down the fire alarm unit in the ceiling and, concealed within it, finds a webcam. Now he thinks about it there’s one of these in every room in the building and – my God! – at his luxury home.

Hoffmann calls in their highly paid security consultant, Maurice Genoud, who astonishes Hoffmann and Quarry (though not, by this stage, the reader) by revealing that he, Hoffmann, ordered him to instal these webcams in every room in the office and at his home. No, he never did, Hoffmann shouts furiously. At which point Genoud brings in his laptop and calmly shows him the series of emails he, Hoffmann, sent him, Genoud, with detailed instructions for their installation. Not only that, but the emails give detailed requests for security to be set up at the new ‘server farm’ in a remote industrial estate on the outskirts of Geneva. What? This is the first time Hoffmann or Quarry have heard about this place.

VIXAL-4

In the background during all of this, the quants, the market analysts, are getting more concerned about the wild positions VIXAL-4 is committing the company to. In particular, it has withdrawn all the ‘hedges’ ie the safe bets, which are meant to balance out the speculative profitable bets. Their Risk Manager, Gana Rajamani, chooses this moment to insist that they close VIXAL-4 down. Responding to this clamour, Hoffmann reluctantly walks into the room containing all the servers and turns off the power. The computers go off. There is silence in the computer room. But when he walks back into the main office Quarry and the quants are still waiting for him to do it. They haven’t noticed any change. VIXAL-4 is trading more furiously than ever. The industrial estate! What if a parallel system has been set up there?

Gana is murdered

Gana begins further criticism of the programme which merely prompts Hoffmann to launch a tirade against his priggish cowardice, and Quarry, the hatchet man, to sack Gana on the spot. Gana clears his desk, walks to the lift, whose doors ping open, he steps through them and – disappears. Disappears? The lift wasn’t there; he stepped into empty space!

Any sci-fi fan will by now be completely sure that the computer program has taken over. It heard Gana threaten it and, like Hal in 2001 A Space Odyssey, and all the other rogue computers in thousands of sci-fi stories, it is now defending itself from attack.

Hoffmann runs down to the basement, prises part the elevator doors with a car jack and, sure enough, discovers Gana’s body splatted on the bottom of the elevator shaft. Not only that but, as in a thousand horror movies, the shaft door slam shut and the elevator begins descending towards him at top speed. It is only by holding the thick steel jack vertically, that Hoffmann halts the elevator’s descent and survives in the foot or so of space beneath it and the floor. Then it goes back up and he is able to prise open the lift shaft doors and escape.

Fiery climax

Now his mission is clear: to stop VIXAL-4 which has clearly acquired a mind of its own. He hijacks a car from a bemused Austrian businessman and drives at top speed out to the grim industrial suburb of Zimeysa. On the way he stops at a gas station to buy five petrol containers, rags and matches. Yes he is planning to blow it up. By now Leclerc the Swiss policeman who had been called in to respond to the original mugging of Hoffmann at his home, and was told by his boss to stay with the case, has also found the murder scene in the seedy hotel, been called by the irate psychotherapist and arrived at the offices of Hoffmann Investment to find it in turmoil. And then to discover what is left of Gana’s body at the bottom of the lift shaft. Reports of a wild-eyed man buying petrol at the gas station alert him, Quarry and Gabby to Hoffmann’s destination and Hoffmann has barely passed the installation’s security barriers and passwords before a whole posse of police cars and fire engines appear at the gates.

Briefly, Hoffmann explores the strange intricate installation the program has designed for itself, pouring petrol as he goes. Gabby and Quarry get as far as the door and beg him to leave but, with one last adoring look at his baby, Hoffmann flicks the cigarette lighter and WHOOMPF! it all goes up in flames. there are a terrifying few pages as Hoffmann finds himself running through the maze of rooms and compartments before emerging onto the roof as a human torch and plummeting to the ground below.

Epilogue

However:

a) Hoffmann survives, for in the final pages we are told he is in hospital, swathed in bandages and burn cream.

b) When Quarry finally makes it back to the Hoffmann Investment Technologies office in the evening of what has been a very long day – he discovers the quants all still sitting looking at their screens, even though it’s past 8pm. Why? Because VIXAL-4 is still trading. Hoffmann blew up the remote computer centre but — the programme has obviously installed itself somewhere else, in the cloud, throughout the internet, everywhere. And not only is it still functioning, it is still making huge profits for the company. After is initial shock, Quarry leans back in his chair. The police will charge Hoffmann with various misdeeds. They know he went mad and tried to destroy a computer centre. But they don’t know why. Maybe Quarry should relax and let the programme carry on making him a billionaire. Perhaps, after all, this is the future, and it is unstoppable!

The characters

Dr Alex Hoffmann An American, Hoffman came to Switzerland in the 1990s to work at CERN on the Large Hadron Collider. He worked there for 6 years designing programs to manage the vast amount of data generated by the Collider, but got into trouble with the authorities for creating an artificial intelligence programme which threatened to run out of control. A chance meeting with Hugo Quarrel, just as CERN were closing down his project, persuaded Hoffmann that he could apply the same technique – devising an algorithm which would learn which data was significant – to analysing money and risk. He’s not really interested in money – or people – except as expressions of data and behaviour.

Gabby the modern artist. This makes it rather unlikely that he should therefore have hooked up with the astonishingly beautiful Gabby, an Englishwoman who did an art degree in Manchester. She, for her part, is uncomfortable with his astonishing, obscene wealth. A memorable incident in their relationship was when he bought a whole tank of lobsters in an up-market restaurant purely to release them back into the sea. During their blazing row at the art gallery, she reveals that she hates the vast house he has only just bought and moved them into.

Hoffmann’s business partner Hugo Quarry, gladhanding and pressing the flesh but Hoffmann and his investment algorithms are the heart of Hoffmann Investment Technologies – with its swish ten-story paperless office and 60 quants or quantitative analysts aka quants (p.72) working silently at their computer screens, on an average annual salary of half a million each (p.73)

The Swiss detective Jean-Philippe Leclerc is called to the scene of the break-in at Hoffmann’s mansion. Already tired at the end of a shift, looking a bit rumpled in his dirty raincoat, he is not happy when his boss rings him and tells him to stay with the case and shadow Hoffmann, in other words to pull a double shift. Harris has to have Leclerc do this, in order to have him cover the events of the next 24 hours, to slowly uncover the trail of murder and mayhem which Hoffmann is leaving behind him, and to be in at the climax at the exploding computer centre.

The theme of fear

  • Fear is the emotion referred to in the Darwin book
  • Each chapter opens with a quote, generally from one of Darwin’s books, some about the topic of fear and anxiety in animals, later on about the way the process of evolution itself is unstoppable
  • Hoffmann becomes a walking record of anxieties and paranoia:
    • he thinks the intruder is going to kidnap or harm Gabby, or kidnap her
    • he is told he might have dementia, triggering anxiety
    • he gives a long cerebral explanation of fear as the key factor of international trading markets
    • he and his partner become genuinely fearful at VIXAL-4’s irrational behaviour
    • he is fearful of whoever sent him the book
    • he is fearful of whoever bought all Gabby’s artworks
    • during the fight with the attacker, he resorts to basic animal-fear, fight or flight blind fury.
  • The VIX index is the fear index. Fear stalks the financial markets, in an all-too-predictable way.

The word fear is frequently repeated throughout the text, as if simple repetition will somehow instal it at the heart of the fiction. But although the final 50 pages or so are every bit as nailbiting and intense as Harris’s other thrillers, somehow all these different people all having different sorts of fear diffuses the effect.

The more Harris explicitly mentions fear of this, that or the other, the more we feel we’re being coerced or hassled into accepting a thesis and not responding imaginatively to a fully worked-out work of fiction.

A miscellany

Interesting though each one of them is individually, it feels like the book is grappling with too many issues:

  • the threat of artificial intelligence (or autonomous machine reasoning, AMR, as Hoffmann prefers to call it, p.49) running out of control
  • the computerisation of the world’s stock exchanges vastly increasing the risk of irrational crashes
  • the dark side of the internet putting in touch people who murder and who want to be murdered
  • hyper modern art ie the MRI scans on glass

as well as lengthy sections explaining Hoffmann’s work at CERN and the Large Hadron Collider and modern particle physics.

It is a tribute to Harris’s grasp and ability as a writer that he manages to pull so many disparate threads together into one coherent narrative. Nevertheless, the plot goes on hold too many times while we are subjected to another factual briefing about computerisation or artificial intelligence or the amount of data generated by CERN or the speed of stock market transactions or any of a score of other interesting but distracting topics.

The book still has some slick and fancy turns of phrase:

A tram rattled to a halt and opened its doors, spilling out passengers along its entire length, as if a knife had been passed from end to end, gutting it. (p.76)

But nowhere near as many or as atmospheric as in its predecessor, The Ghost. And too many of its sentence read like this:

Evolution remains a self-interested process, and even the interests of confined digital organisms may conflict with our own. (p.309)

They’re interesting in themselves, and necessary to explain the book’s multiple scientific issues. But they make it read at many points more like a Wikipedia article than a novel. Despite its gripping and thrilling climax, for me the majority of the book felt like it consisted of too many disparate elements, which the actual story struggled to pull together, and which were too resolutely factual and documentary to really come to life.

Plus, at a bucket level, the whole book relies on us caring what happens to an American banker. And who, in our day and age, is going to do that? Probably the majority of its readers actively want him to come to a sticky end.

Credit

The Fear Index by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Arrow Books paperback edition.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

The Ghost by Robert Harris (2007)

This is a cracking thriller, exciting, intelligent and insightful about a range of contemporary issues.

Harris and Blair

The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer ie he co-writes the memoirs of sportsmen, entertainers, celebrities, people in the public eye who have a life story to tell but can’t write.

Out of the blue he is invited to ‘ghost’ the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (obviously based on Tony Blair, who stepped down from the premiership in June 2007; this novel was published in September of the same year).

Harris was an early supporter of Blair in the mid-1990s. As a personal friend he had access to Blair throughout his premiership and, as a political journalist (political editor of the Observer newspaper, aged just 30) he also possessed a solid understanding of the wider British political scene. This comes over in the book which shows both a humorous familiarity with both the publishing world and an insider’s knowledge of the machinations, the personalities, of high politics.

Harris takes us through the process of meeting agents, publishers, negotiating and signing a deal, with lots of snappy insights into the ruthless commercialism of the process and the boardroom politics involved.

The narrator has just split up with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kate, who was once a devoted supporter of Lang and is now an equally firm denouncer of him as a traitor and war criminal, because of his decision to help the Americans invade Iraq.

So with nothing to tie him down, the narrator flies out to Boston, takes a cab on to the luxury house located on a remote stretch of the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s actually the ultra-modern beach-side mansion of the owner of the publishing house which has paid $10 million in advances for Lang’s autobiography, Marty Rhinehart.

Here he meets the man himself, his secretarial staff – notably the blonde, over-made-up Personal Assistant Amelia Bly – and Lang’s redoubtable wife, Ruth.

Elements of unease

The pace is superbly managed. Harris masterfully deploys plotlines, details and atmosphere to combine and create a powerful sense of unease, slowly undermining the breezy narrative tone, like a dinghy springing multiple leaks.

McAra’s death Right at the start we learn that someone else had been working on the autobiography before our man – one of Lang’s entourage, a loyal party hack named Mike McAra. One bleak December night he appears to have fallen over the edge of the ferry you have to take to get to Martha’s Vineyard. Everyone concludes it was suicide. But a doubt has been planted in our minds…

Panic rush Meanwhile, McAra’s abrupt removal from the scene creates a crisis in the publishing timeline. The narrator is horrified to learn that the publishers expect him to deliver a finished manuscript within a month. Almost impossible, but his worries are assuaged by the fee: he’ll get $250,000! Well, that will help – but still it means the narrator feels crowded, hassled and under pressure.

Mugged and set up? When he leaves the publishers (at its horrible, modern, windswept offices out towards Heathrow) Rhinehart presses on him another manuscript he’d like the narrator to read. This is odd, given the tight deadline on the main book, and odd that it’s wrapped in a bright yellow bag.

Just after the narrator gets out of the cab back at his flat and is turning to open the door, he is brutally mugged, punched in the gut and knocked to the floor. When he comes round he a) feels terrible, bruised and grazed b) realises the bag has been stolen.

Recovering in the safety of his flat, the Narrator has a paranoid moment when he wonders whether Rhinehart gave him the yellow bag as a test, thinking someone might think the narrator was carrying the manuscript of Lang’s autobiography – and that this is worth mugging someone and stealing.

Terrorism The novel was written and published soon after the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London and the narrator conveys the jaded expectation that bombings might become a regular occurrence of modern London life. In fact, there is a (fictional) Tube bombing,  at Oxford Circus, on the same day he visits the publisher and receives the assignment.

Security When his cab arrives at the remote Martha’s Vineyard house, the narrator is unnerved at the level of security surrounding the former Prime Minister. Security guards patrol the perimeter of the property, check his ID as his cab approaches, the house windows are bullet proof and so on. The narrator is scared witless when there is a sudden emergency lockdown of the house, complete with metal panels descending over the windows and a deafening klaxon – although this turns out to be the regular weekly test.

Complicity in torture Even as he sets off, the Narrator sees on the TV news at home, then at the airport terminal and glimpses in the courtesy newspapers, a breaking news story that Lang is being named as having personally ordered the capture of four British Muslims in Pakistan by the SAS, who then handed them over to the CIA to be interrogated as possible terrorism suspects. This is to be the mainspring of the plot and to blow up into a fast-moving crisis.

The plot

Once past security, introduced to everyone and ensconced in the beachfront house, the narrator has a successful morning working session with Lang, teasing out personal stories from his early life.

However, the process has barely begun before it is blown off course by news that Lang’s former Foreign Secretary has personally intervened in the news story about the four Muslims, to name Lang as guilty of ordering their arrest.

Immediately, there is speculation on the TV news that Lang might be indicted at the Hague for war trials. Gathered round the TV in the isolated house, Lang, Ruth, Amy and the narrator watch, appalled, as the lead prosecutor at the Hague announces she will be leading a full investigation into the accusations.  While the group feverishly discuss what Lang’s response should be – fly back to Britain to face out the charge, fly to Washington to meet his pal the President – the narrator finds himself drafted in to write Lang’s official response, which is then released to the press.

All this blows a big hole in the Narrator’s plans for a week of cosy chats about his life and career, as Lang and his entourage abruptly depart for Washington, there to be photographed shaking hands with a grateful President etc, and leaving the Narrator suddenly alone in the big echoing luxury mansion by the slate-grey winter sea.

What McAra discovered

Here, to his discomfort, he has been given the room used by the dead aide, McAra, and it is as he is clearing out the dead man’s stuff that he comes across a pack of photos and documents from Lang’s university career, posted to him by the Lang Foundation archive.

And notices something odd. Among a series of old photos of Lang at Cambridge there’s one of him with various student actors in the famous Footlights review, and scribbled on the back a phone number. When the narrator tentatively rings it he is horrified to hear the voice of the ex-Foreign Secretary, Rycart, Lang’s mortal enemy, answering the phone. In a panic, he breaks the connection.

At the beach

With Lang now departed for the airport and nothing to do or read, the narrator finds himself brooding on McAra and his mysterious death. He borrows one of the house bicycles and cycles out to where McAra’s body was found on an isolated beach. Harris gives a brilliant description of a dark rainstorm coming in, then breaking. The narrator takes shelter in the porch of an old timer who comes out to tell him there’s no way that body could have drifted from the ferry route to this beach, not with the currents round here; and all about ‘the lights on the beach’ the night McAra’s body was found. And then about the old lady who was telling everybody what she saw until she had an accident, fell down the stairs, poor thing, and is now in a coma. The narrator is seriously spooked. Could it be McAra’s accident/suicide was staged. Was he in fact murdered? And why?

Barely has he started thinking this through than he is disconcerted to see Ruth Lang (and her bodyguard, who follows her everywhere) trudging up the beach towards him. She insists they pile the bike in the back of their hummer and drive him back to the mansion.

Sleeping with the Prime Minister’s wife

Here they have hot baths, dress and have dinner, during which the narrator finds himself confiding some of his new discoveries to Ruth. She is shocked, and then concerned. What has Adam got himself into? At the end of the evening she comes into his room, still in her night-dress and collapses in tears into his arms. And into his bed. And they have sex.

The narrator knows it’s a bad idea and in the morning it seems a lot worse. Ruth is brisk and hard and efficient, dismissing their overnight dalliance, making cutting remarks about him not being ‘a real writer’.

The narrator has had enough and decides to get off the island altogether for a break. The house servants this time persuade him not to cycle but to take the spare car, one of those all-mod-cons American jeeps. He is disconcerted to learn it is the car McAra was driving when he disappeared off the ferry, but it’s the only one available.

Where the satnav takes him

The narrator gets in and drives towards the ferry, all the time irritated by the satnav which he can’t figure out how to turn off. Doesn’t matter at first because it directs him to the ferry and then on to the nearest town, where our man will be quite happy to sit in a Starbucks and ponder his odd situation.

But the Satnav has other plans. It insistently tells him to turn around and take the next exit out of town. Because he is bored, irritated and curious, he gives in and does what it tells him. Only as he proceeds further into the new England wilderness does it dawn on him that he is following the route of McAra’s last journey.

Professor Emmett

The directions bring him to an isolated track into deep woodland, where there are a few scattered homesteads, and to the house of – he discovers when he looks at the mail in the mailbox – a certain Professor Paul Emmett. Even as he’s sitting there in the car wondering what to do next, Emmett’s car sweeps by and into his drive. So the narrator rings the intercom and gets invited up to the house.

Here Emmett proves himself at first a genial host, happy to answer questions about his magical year at Cambridge as a Rhodes scholar. He is less forthright about his memories of Lang, who he claims not to remember at all, until the narrator confronts him with the old photos he’s got showing Emmett and Lang together in the same drama production. He becomes cagey. Then when the narrator produces his news that McAra drove up here to meet him on the night of his death, Emmett point blank denies it. In fact he produces his wife who independently looks up their diary and shows that they were at an academic conference all the weekend in question. And his geniality has long worn out. He asks the narrator to leave.

Emmett – CIA – Lang?

In the nearby village of Belmont the narrator finds an internet café and spends some time googling Paul Emmett. He discovers Emmett is head of a typical right-wing US think tank and lobby group. He googles the CVs of the other directors and discovers they are all in the military or the arms trade. Then he stumbles across an accusation made years back by a CIA whistleblower that Emmett was himself a CIA agent, from as far back as the 1970s. The CIA? And Adam Lang, Britain’s Prime Minister?

Outside the internet café the narrator notices a black car parked a discreet distance from his jeep. He begins to look at the other occupants of the café with a suspicious mind. Is that just an ordinary couple sitting looking at the one laptop? What about the middle-aged guy over in the corner? Do they know what the narrator has found out? Is he being followed?

By now seriously spooked, the narrator uses the phone number he found on McAra’s Lang photo and rings Rycart again, but this time stays on the line. He explains who he is and how he found the number. Rycart tells the narrator to fly up to New York, he’ll arrange a secure cab to collect him, and bring him to an airport hotel where they can talk.

Conference with Rycart

And that’s what happens. Once frisked and checked out by the security guard-cum-cabbie, the narrator meets Rycart in an airport hotel and they tentatively share their knowledge. McAra had found out that Lang as a student was close to Emmett – hence them being together in the Cambridge photos – for Emmett had an American scholarship to Cambridge for a year.

Both of them think that Emmett must have been acting as a CIA recruiter even at that early stage, and that he recruited Lang as a CIA agent. For Rycart this explains why ‘everything went wrong’ during Lang’s premiership. Can he, he asks the narrator, think of a major decision the government took which did not favour US foreign policy? Agreeing to the invasion of Iraq and being its vociferous defender? Agreeing to ‘extraordinary rendition’ ie kidnapping suspects? Not contesting Guantanamo Bay? Unequal trade agreements? The list goes on…. All sponsored by a British Prime Minister who was in fact acting under orders from his American puppet masters!

Rycart confirms that this was McAra’s conclusion, too, and that – in a bombshell for the narrator – was McAara, one of Lang’s oldest and most loyal lieutenants, who handed Rycart the information about the four Muslims who were kidnapped by the SAS! Who betrayed his boss, having come to the conclusion that his boss had betrayed the entire country.

Their hotel room confabulation is suddenly interrupted when Lang himself phones the narrator’s mobile. ‘Where are you, man? In New York, why? Oh to meet your publishers, OK. Well, come up and meet us, we’re at the Waldorf Hotel.’

Rycart nods his agreement so the narrator says yes – now terrified that he is probably under surveillance and of what happened to McAra and to the little old lady. ‘They’ have shown they will stop at nothing to hush the story up.

Back with Lang

He gets a cab from the hotel airport to the Waldorf but finds the Lang entourage just on the point of leaving. They are hurrying to fly back to the Vineyard and the narrator gets caught up in the hurry and panic, and swept up into one of the cars.

Once aboard the small plane, and everyone is settled, the narrator gets one final opportunity to interview Lang – seven minutes it turns out to last, he tapes it – and asks him directly about McAra. Ruth had said they had a terrible row the night before McAra died: what was it about? Lang says he doesn’t want to talk about it. But when the narrator reveals that it was McAra who handed the evidence of Lang’s orders for the Muslims to be kidnapped over to Rycart, he is shaken to his core. ‘Mike, Mike, Mike, what have you done?’

But it was a short flight and the plane is coming in to land. The narrator and the PA, Amelia, watch Lang, now haggard and gaunt, walk onto the plane steps and down and begin to cross the runway to the departure lounge, where they can see Ruth waiting.

A British voice rings out – ‘Adam!’ – it is one of the baggage handlers and Lang, ever the pro, breaks his walk to turn and shake hands with him when BOOM! – a big explosion throws the narrator, Amelia and everyone else back through the door.

A British suicide bomber has blown up himself and Lang. As the narrator recovers in hospital he finds out the bomber’s son died in Iraq and then his wife in a terrorist bombing. Ex-Army himself, he’d made himself a suicide vest. Lang is blown to smithereens, and so end the narrator’s worries.

Recuperation and writing

He recovers in hospital – it was his hearing which took the most damage – and then in a blaze of inspiration he writes the book, having found the ‘voice’ which can speak for Lang the strange, empty actor he’s got to know as well as anybody ever has, filling the book with his own brief, passionate involvement with this strange man.

He meets the deadline and the book is published on time. Like most ghosts, he isn’t invited to the launch party but Amelia is and she takes him as her plus one.

Ruth is there and air kisses the narrator – mwah mwah – then he sees her looking over her shoulder making some subtle indication of her head, turns – and is amazed to see Emmett standing behind him! He has a horrible flash, a moment if insight. What if… it wasn’t Lang that Emmett recruited?

The secret revealed

Back at his flat the narrator remembers some throwaway words Rycart used in their furtive hotel meeting: McAra had said something about the truth being in the beginning of his original long manuscript. What if he meant – in the beginnings? Suddenly he looks at the first word of each chapter of the manuscript and they spell out a hidden message:

Langs wife Ruth studying in 76 was recruited as a CIA agent in America by Professor Paul Emmett of Harvard University

So the most effective British Prime Minister in a generation turns out to have been manipulated in all his major policy decisions by his more clever, canny wife, who all along had been an agent for the CIA!

That explains why, as Rycraft enumerates them, that government was a lapdog to the yanks and never took a single decision that didn’t favour America’s aggressive foreign policy. Lang wasn’t influenced by the CIA: he was shallow and impressionable enough to be influenced in all these major decisions by his wife!

Envoi

The final, genuinely spooky, pages are written by the narrator on the run. Convinced his life is at risk he is now moving from hotel to hotel changing name, spending only cash. He is confirmed in his paranoia when he reads in the paper that Rycart and his driver have died in a freak road accident. God, the net is closing in.

In the final paragraphs we learn that he has sent the manuscript of the text we’re reading to his girlfriend, Kate – the one who was no friend to Lang – with instructions to open it and send it to a publisher if she doesn’t hear from him every month or reads that he is dead.

So the fact we are reading this novel at all implicates us, the readers – the narrator must have been killed. But at least the truth is out! It is a cheesy but convincing end to a brilliantly convincing thriller.


Politics

I shared the general euphoria when Tony Blair and New Labour came to power in 1997. As I worked on an international news programme in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I knew a bit about the Middle East, but wasn’t especially appalled when the Coalition invaded Iraq, though I knew (apparently, unlike most MPs) that the WMD argument for the invasion was a load of guff. So I am not one of the vengeful who feel Tony Blair must be indicted for war crimes.

International affairs have never been an appropriate place for western morality, it is entirely a question of Realpolitik and the art of the achievable. So I think the main accusation against the Americans isn’t immorality, but sheer ineptitude. Every schoolchild should be made to read Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks, a truly awe-inspiring account of the way the Americans screwed up every aspect of the invasion and especially the post-war ‘pacification’ of Iraq. We are still, 13 years later, dealing with the fallout, which may last more than a generation.

What is impressive about Harris’s novel is the way he dramatises so many points of view about the war and the resulting terror attacks – Lang gets to have his say justifying the invasion and the war on terror; Rycart, his ally-turned-enemy, has his say about betrayal at government level; Kate, the narrator’s girlfriend, embodies the reaction of many New Labour devotees turned vengeful in their disillusionment; and the ex-Army man who blows up himself and Lang represents all those who lost family as a direct or indirect result.

Amid the bombings, news alerts and general hysteria, the narrator is a deliberate everyman figure, someone we can all relate to, someone aware of the scary changes in the society around him but with a living to make, who just has to get on with it.

Having read a newspaper report accusing Lang of giving the authorisation for the four Muslims to be kidnapped and rendered to Guantanamo, the narrator thinks:

I read it through three times. It didn’t seem to add up to much. It was hard to tell any more. One’s moral bearings were no longer as fixed as they used to be. Methods my father’s generation would have considered beyond the pale, even when fighting the Nazis – torture, for example – were now apparently acceptable civilised behaviour. I decided that the ten per cent of the population who worry about these things would be appalled by the report, assuming they ever managed to locate it; the remaining ninety would probably just shrug. We had been told that the Free World was taking a walk on the dark side. What did people expect? (p.57)

That captures the feeling of most of us, doesn’t it? Aware that bad things are being done in our name but powerless to stop any of it.


Style and feel

Reviewing Harris’s previous thrillers, I noted that they all use ‘modern thriller prose’, fairly plain and functional in its clarity – but that he gave each novel a distinctive slant or angle. This one is comedy. The narrator is the wrong side of 30, in an unhappy relationship with TV producer ‘Kate’, lives in a poky top floor flat in Notting Hill, and wonders how his early ambitions came to this. Nonetheless he approaches every situation, almost to the end, with attractive hangdog humour, and quite quickly you are charmed by his humorous take on situations and people. Of the head of the publishing firm:

Maddox sat with his back to the window. He laid his massive, hairless hands on the glass-topped table, as if to prove he had no intention of reaching for a weapon just yet. (p.22)

It is a clever trick – in a book full of cleverness and alertness – to establish the narrator as an easy-going comic turn, before the suspense of the conspiracy starts to kick in. His humorous mind-set makes him easy to warm to and sympathise with and this makes it all the more plausible and compelling to accompany him on his slow-dawning journey of realisation.

This, Harris’s fourth thriller, seemed to me to have more a few more poetic touches, more descriptions and atmosphere than his previous novels. In particular there is lots of description of out of season New England seaside resorts in blustery January, of the lowering weather and half-abandoned streets.

After a while we came to a crossroads and turned into what I guessed must be Edgartown, a settlement of white clapboard houses with white picket fences, small gardens and verandas, lit by ornate Victorian streetlamps. Nine out of ten were dark but in a few windows which shone with yellow light I glimpsed oil paintings of sailing ships and whiskered ancestors. At the bottom of the hill, past the Old Whaling Church, a big, misty moon cast a silvery light over shingled roofs and silhouetted the masts in the harbour. Curls of wood smoke rose from a couple of chimneys. I felt as though I was driving on to a film set for Moby Dick. (p.53)

This one seemed to me to have more, and more imaginative, similes than its predecessors – a steady trickle of imaginative, stimulating, useful comparisons.

The receptionist at the hotel in Edgartown had warned me that the forecast was for a storm, and although it still hadn’t broken yet, the sky was beginning to sag with the weight of it, like a soft grey sack waiting to split apart. (p.195)

Amelia slipped into position in front of the computer screen. I don’t think I ever saw fingers move so rapidly across a keyboard. the clicks seemed to merge into one continuous purr of plastic, like the sound of a million dominoes falling. (p.125)

Not only is the plot gripping and enthralling, but sentence by sentence, Harris’s prose is a delight to read. Easy, limpid, intelligent, imaginative.

The book reeks of intelligence, a profound understanding of the processes of politics, a solid grasp of the social and political scene in the terror-wary 2000s. This is the second time I’ve read it and, like all Harris’s novels, I can imagine giving it a few years, and then rereading it again, for the pure intellectual pleasure of engaging with such a smart and savvy author.


Dramatis personae

  • The unnamed narrator – a seasoned, good humoured ghost writer
  • Kate –  his left-wing girlfriend, formerly a member of the Labour Party, who now hates Adam Lang
  • Marty Rhinehart – head of a multinational publishing corporation which spent a $10 million advance on Lang’s memoirs, who’s loaned his house out to Lang as a bolthole to work on the memoirs
  • John Maddox – scarily bullish chief executive of Rhinehart Inc.
  • Roy Quigley – 50-ish, senior editor at Rhinehart Publishing (UK Group Editor-in-Chief) who we see almost get sacked
  • Sidney Kroll – Lang’s sharp Washington attorney
  • Nick Riccardelli – the narrator’s hussling agent
  • Adam Lang – former British Prime Minister
  • Ruth Lang – his clever scheming wife
  • Mike McAra – former staffer for Lang, who spent two years doing preparatory research for his boss’s autobiography, then mysteriously disappeared off a ferry, presumed suicide
  • Amelia Bly – Lang’s elegant, blonde, over-made-up personal assistant, who, it becomes clear, Lang is having an affair with
  • Richard Rycart – former Foreign Secretary under Lang, now a rather vainglorious member of the UN, it is he who sends the International Criminal Court the documents implicating Lang in the kidnapping (‘rendition’) of four Muslim terror suspects
  • Professor Emmett – CIA agent who was sent to Cambridge in the 1970s to recruit rising stars, and recruited Ruth Lang

The movie

The movie was directed by no less a luminary than Roman Polanski. It is astonishingly faithful to the novel, featuring almost the identical scenes and much of the original dialogue, which shows how focused and lean Harris’s writing is. The most obvious change is that whereas Lang is assassinated by a (white English) suicide bomber in the novel, the same angry character assassinates him using a sniper rifle in the movie. I think the bomb is more fitting / ironic / poetical, and explains why the narrator is laid up in hospital for a while afterwards. People being shot are ten a penny in American movies, as in American life.

I watched it with my son (18), who hadn’t read the book, was thoroughly gripped by the narrative’s slow building of tension and fear, and then amazed at the final revelation that it was Ruth all along.

Credit

The Ghost by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2007. All quotes and references are to the 2008 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

Absolute Friends by John le Carré (2004)

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

For three quarters of its length this is the best, the most compelling, gripping and psychologically rewarding le Carré novel for years: for excitement and plausibility I would recommend this one over all its predecessors as far back as A Perfect Spy. It is a return to the full-blown world of Cold War spying, but now continued on into the more uncertain, violent and scary post-9/11 world and also, for the first time in his fiction, gives a real sense of age and frailty and remorse.

Then bizarrely, right at the end, the narrative turns into a rant against George Bush, Tony Blair and the US invasion of Iraq, our heroes get assassinated by the wicked, imperialist Americans and the whole thing is covered up in a finale that’s reminiscent of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, only without the wit or style.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends feels like yet another channeling of le Carré’s own life story. Like the author, the main protagonist Ted Mundy is brought up by a braggart father – this version is a British Army Major who stays on into post-Independence Pakistan, all bristling patriotism and military lingo, his mother having died in childbirth. When his father is cashiered from the Army in the 1950s, young Ted returns with him to grey, rainy England and, like the young JLC, is packed off to a succession of boarding schools which he hates, before – exactly like JLC – discovering a liking for German language and literature and so going abroad to study, in this fictional instance, to Berlin (le Carré went to study in Basel in Switzerland).

As with A Perfect Spy, the closer le Carré is to his own life, the more grounded the text and the language feel. Granted the entire childhood in Pakistan, the food and Muslim prayers and Urdu words for things, are not directly autobiographical but the product of research – nonetheless, the character’s feelings of being puzzled, isolated, seeking escape from a childhood world which is both smothering and the only support he knows, are powerfully conveyed and give the novel more psychological conviction than its four or five predecessors.

The plot

At Oxford Ted had taken a lover (le Carré heroes are never short of women, they luxuriate in an atmosphere of sustained sensuality – the ease with which Jonathan Roper or Oliver Single or Andrew Osnard or Ted Mundy attract and bed posh totty is one of the defining characteristics of these books).

Strident young Ilse introduces him to sex and radical politics, packing him off to Berlin with a letter of introduction to the city’s top student radical, Sasha (we never learn his last name).

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

Here we come to one of le Carré’s most irritating mannerisms – the way so many of his protagonists are in awe of super-famous, notorious, legendary figures. Thus everyone in Berlin knows Sasah, just as everyone in Panama knew Harry Pendel, everyone in the City knew ‘Tiger’ Single, and so on and so on.

Sasha is a small, intense, broken-looking chap but, again, like all le Carré leading men, the smirking ‘conqueror’ of numberless women – as well as being the much-admired brains behind radical student politics in the seething Berlin of 1969.

It’s rather a relief that, for the first time in five or six novels, the books features scenes which don’t involve chaps from Eton and Winchester pointing out to each other how legendary and/or what total rotters each other are, in that insufferably self-congratulatory public school way.

Indeed, the scenes set among the free love and ‘smash the system’ radical students of late 1960s Berlin felt powerful and persuasive – helped no end by being set among foreigners who don’t end each sentence ‘old boy’, and therefore sound like normal people, not the self-regarding ‘legends’ of Eton or Harrow or Shrewsbury who populate his other post-1990s novels.

Ted enjoys free sex with, inevitably, the most beautiful and aloof of the many beautiful young women in the squat. All women in le Carré novels are young and beautiful and carefree, personally I find this thread rather creepy.

They go sticking up posters calling for the workers to overthrow the system etc, and then there’s a big demonstration in which 6-foot-tall Ted a) rescues Sasha from a beating by the police b) is himself arrested, soundly beaten, handed over to the British Consulate and deported.

Time passes during which Ted does not resume his degree at Oxford but tries various life experiments and the narrative gives a good sense of the confidence and open horizons so many people experienced in the early 1970s.

Ted teaches at schools (inevitably he has affair with one of the other master’s wives), lives for a while in the stoned writer’s colony in Taos, USA (obviously has an affair with a painter’s wife), tries his hand as a radio reporter and newspaper journalist, before drifting back to London and getting a homely little job at the British Council.

He also lowers his sexual sights from artists and free spirits and falls in love with a practical young woman, Kate, teacher in a local state school (that is, not a fee-paying boarding school – crikey, there are a few around, apparently) who also happens to be an activist in the local Labour Party.

In his new British Council role Ted is tasked with accompanying a youth theatre group across north Europe and then around the Eastern bloc countries. This meandering account all leads up to the seismic moment when Ted is hailed by Sasha backstage in an Eastern European capital. Yes, Sasha, Sasha from the old days in the Berlin commune!

Quickly Sasha makes a rendezvous with Ted at which he tells the incredulous Englishman what’s happened to him in the decade since the glory years in Berlin. Briefly, he was lured by radical colleagues to cross the Wall into the East where he was at first interrogated and grilled in the notorious ‘White Hotel’ interrogation centre, and then, finally, rehabilitated, on condition that he became a lowly employee of the State Security Police, the Stasi.

Now, by the time of this backstage meeting with Ted, Sasha has become completely disillusioned with life in the East, whose authorities he dismisses as ‘red fascists’. He has begun copying incriminating documents and building up an archive of the State’s criminality against the long-awaited day, far in the future, when the communist regime will collapse. And then he was amazed to see his old friend Ted’s name on the manifest of a travelling theatre group. And hence this meeting…

Sasha tells Ted he wants to spy for the West. He has access to files and documents and information all of which he will give to the West, for nothing, just out of anger and hatred of the regime. Ted doesn’t know what to think, and has the latest of many out-of-body experiences he has throughout the novel whenever he finds himself out of his depth. However, Sasha stipulates that he will only hand these goodies over to Ted, in person, no-one else. To manage this, Sasha explains, to cement their bond, Ted must offer himself as a spy to his Stasi masters. This will provide the perfect excuse for their meetings.

Ted becomes a spy

Sasha even explains to Ted who to get in touch with when he gets back to the West, a drawling, upper-class Intelligence officer in West Berlin, Nicholas Amory, who becomes his case officer. Ted now undergoes training in a) how to collect Sasha’s information b) how to present himself as a candidate for recruitment by the Stasi, not being too earnest, playing hard to get, then ultimately giving in and agreeing to become a double agent.

This central part of the novel is familiar territory for le Carré, but fascinating nonetheless. His classic spy novels from the 1960s and 70s emphasised the human cost of the trade and this is no different. Ted has married Kate and they have a young son, Jake, but all of them find it wearing to cope with Ted’s more and more frequent trips to Eastern Europe, ostensibly attending conferences promoting British Culture, but in every instance a) pretending to the Stasi that he has vital espionage material to feed Sasha b) in fact collecting and transporting back Sasha’s top secret information to his British handlers.

The narrative makes a deal out of the multiple versions of himself Ted has to navigate: Mundy One, his ‘true self’, Mundy Two the British spy, Mundy Three the pretend Stasi spy. Throw in playing the roles of good father and dutiful husband, and you have a very confused public schoolboy, who wishes he could just go and play cricket. I found the narrative’s portrayal of this slightly hallucinatory sense of managing multiple selves very convincing.

Amidst all the spying Ted is introduced by Amory to a tall, shaggy, comfortable American, who interviews him in depth over a number of days, and who he grows to like, one Orville J. Rourke (‘call me Jay’), whose dear old mother, like Ted’s, is of Irish descent.

Then, one day, Jay disappears, without a goodbye or anything. Amory explains to Ted that he has just been vetted by ‘the cousins’ (i.e. the CIA) and passed clean. Good for him.

Over the years Ted and Kate drift apart. She finds herself promoted within the Labour Party and put forward as the PLP candidate for her home town of Doncaster, which requires her to move up there, along with Jake. Because of his work Ted remains in London, and is often abroad anyway. The inevitable happens and, some years later, they have a summit meeting where Kate announces she’s leaving him, for a shadowy man in the background, Philip, something to do with the shiny New Labour Project.

(Le Carré, who gives every sign of loathing Tony Blair, is heavily sarcastic about Kate and her steady rise in the New Labour hierarchy).

What rings most true from these sequences is Ted’s heartfelt sorrow at missing out on his son’s childhood, sadly meeting up with the teenage Jake and realising he is a stranger to him.

Then one day they all find themselves watching on TV the Berlin Wall being hammered to the ground, while the East German police look on in bemusement. Ted has a moment of concern for his friend Sasha, liable to be lynched by the mob in the anti-Stasi reprisals; and then panic for himself, as he realises his own Stasi file, proclaiming him a communist spy, might be published. But it doesn’t happen…

The present

All le Carré’s post-Cold War novels start in media res, i.e. in the middle of the complete sequence of events they describe. After establishing the situation in ‘the present’, they then go back to explain the often long and convoluted backstories which led up to this moment. Thus Absolute Friends opens soon after the Allied invasion of Iraq (March to May 2003) to find Ted adrift in Europe again and explains everything I’ve just summarised in a flashback.

Having lost his family in England around the same time the Cold War ended and his career as a spy came to an abrupt end, Ted has returned to Germany and set up a school for teaching English to corporate executives.

So as ‘the present’ of the novel opens, this school has shut down, bankrupted by the (possibly) criminal activities of Ted’s business partner Egon, and Ted has drifted down to Munich, where he has fluked a job as an English-speaking tour guide to one of the castles of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, giving chummy, unfunny lectures to bemused tourists.

He has also fallen in love with a poor Muslim immigrant, Zara, who approached him one night in a bar offering to prostitute herself. The decent public schoolboy and soldier’s son in him turns this down and insists on buying her a nutritious dinner. She explains that she is the victim of an arranged marriage made back in Pakistan to a man who turned out to be a crook and wife beater, and who smashed out her front teeth among other assaults, before being arrested and sent to prison. Now she prostitutes herself to support her proud little son, Mustafa.

Ever one for a lost cause (and leaking a fair bit of sentimentality), Ted becomes Zara’s protector, paying for proper food, buying the suspicious Mustafa toys, behaving honourably for he is, like so many le Carré characters, at heart a jolly decent chap, an honourable schoolboy.

And now we realise the reason why le Carré had his protagonist born and raised in Pakistan. It makes him sympathetic to Muslim culture, it makes him ready to be taken along by Zara and Mustafa to their impoverished mosque in the backstreets of Munich, it contributes to his anger at the short-sighted stupidity of the Allies for invading Iraq on a trumped-up pretext.

But despite the naked contrivance of all this, the actual descriptions of Ted’s childhood in dusty Pakistan, of playing with the native children and the sweet memories which elude him in later life, are genuinely moving.

Above all, it is a relief not to be among the braying diplomats and their bitchy wives who have dominated JLC’s past few novels. It feels a little bit like actual modern life, in its poverty and anxiety and multi-cultural confusion. And it feels like an achievement for le Carré to have reached beyond the bubble of his age and class and grasped that.

The counter-university

And so all this brings us to the final act. Out of the blue Ted gets a letter from his old comrade in arms, Sasha, who makes his third great interference in Ted’s life. This time, when they meet, Sasha introduces him to a mad new scheme: there is a secretive billionaire who is so incensed at the West’s invasion of Iraq, and by the stranglehold the new, more virulent military-industrial complex is exerting over all aspects of Western media, culture and education, that he has a magic plan at hand – he wants to set up a Counter-University, which will provide a safe space for voices speaking out against the Complex, where alternative discourses and theories can flourish.

Sasha drives Ted out to an aircraft-hanger sized barn in the countryside outside Munich, where they transfer to a 4-by-4 driven by a stern female operative, and then up hill and through a maze of forests and valleys to a remote mansion.

It is like a James Bond lair, immaculate and clean in every detail, and Sasha leaves Ted to be processed by several sets of slick young receptionists and security guards before being admitted to the vast room of Mr Big, who turns out to be a tracksuited, twinkly old man of 70, who gives his name as Dimitri and delivers a long monologue about the evils of the US military-industrial complex. He outlines his plans to set up the Counter-University and even produces a reading list of the kinds of books they should be teaching, a list which could come straight from the pages of the Guardian:

  • Naomi Klein
  • Arundhati Roy
  • George Monbiot
  • Mark Curtis
  • John Pilger
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Joseph Stiglitz
  • Susan George

I’ve read articles or books by all of these authors and even attended lectures by some of them (Klein, Stiglitz). I am broadly sympathetic to their views, but I found le Carré’s decision to promote their views via the mouth of a wizened, old James Bond-style villain, bizarre.

‘I am speaking of something even more important to the development of western society than the ballot box. I am speaking of the deliberate corruption of young minds at their most formative stage. Of the lies that are forced on them from the cradle onwards by corporate or State manipulation, if there’s a difference any more between the two which I begin to doubt. I am speaking of the encroachment of corporate power on every university campus in the first, second and third worlds. I am speaking of educational colonisation by means of corporate investment at faculty level, conditional upon the observation of untrue nostrums that are advantageous to the corporate investor, and deleterious for the poor fuck of a student.’ (p.276)

In the fiction, Ted is driven back to his flat where he agrees the whole deal with Sasha. However, Ted is not that naive and the next night hops into a car and drives back out to the aircraft hanger, only to find it full of farm equipment, and then continues up to the James Bond mansion in the forest, only to find it stripped and bare. Spooky!

Stumbling back through the woods he is aggressively captured by a large force of armed and trigger-happy Austrian security police, stripped, hooded, bundled into a jeep and interrogated before it all comes to a halt with the reappearance of Jay, the CIA man from years before.

Jay reveals to Ted that they have their eyes on Dimitri and have traced his money back to Riyadh. The Saudis. Muslims, Ted. Has it crossed Ted’s mind that Dimitri might not be a peace-loving philanthropist but part of the new web of anti-Western terrorists spreading around the world?

Ted is cleaned up and dropped home where he is paid another visit by his old MI6 minder Nick Amory. For the first time since Ted’s known him, Nick is himself at a loss and puzzled. He reveals MI6’s uncertainty about Dimitri’s background and motives: is it to found a grand new liberal university in the venerable university city of Heidelberg? Or is that the facade for some evil ‘spectacular’ like blowing the city up?

And Nick tells Ted that Jay is no longer with ‘the Company’ i.e. the CIA: he’s been a freelancer, advising big US corporations for four years or more. So whose interests does he have at heart? Ted is right to feel confused, and the reader along with him. Thirty pages from the end Ted loads Zara and Mustafa onto a plane back to Turkey, to attend her sister’s wedding, glad to have them out of the way of whatever happens next.

The big shoot-out

What happens next is Ted drives to the big, empty school building where he’s made an appointment to meet Sasha. Sasha is late. After a few drinks, Ted takes a jemmy and opens the crates of books which have started arriving as preparation for the big new university and are piled up in the big main hall.

Sure enough, he finds lots of books on philosophy etc, but then… some on how to make home-made bombs, tips on arson, and then some crates full of hand grenades and guns. Oh. OK. In a very cinematic moment he sits back in the armchair in the big unlit atrium of the schoolhouse staring at the pile of cracked-open crates in utter silence, wondering what the hell he’s got himself into.

Then he hears the moan of a motor car, a screech of brakes and all hell breaks loose – the doors and windows are smashed in by black-clad US Special Forces firing machine guns in all directions and letting off small explosions. Ted runs to the stairs and stumbles up them despite being hit in the leg and shoulder. He makes it up to the attic where he swings open the skylight, looking down into the road in time to see Sasha being shot to pieces outside. At which point half a dozen SWAT troops burst into the attic followed by a balaclava-ed, tall, shaggy guy with a smooth Boston accent – God, it’s Jay! – who takes careful aim with a sniper’s rifle and shoots Ted through the head.

The cover-up

Exactly as in The Constant Gardener a) the hero is killed by the forces of evil b) le Carré embarks on an elaborate explanation of how a completely fictional cover story is manufactured by the State and media c) one good man speaks out in a bid to tell the truth but is stifled.

So official sources give out that US forces only just managed to prevent a major terrorist atrocity right in the heart of Germany. Huge stockpiles of ammunition and guides to terrorism were seized and two of the hardened terrorists shot dead but not before an intense firefight. Ted’s life is completely rewritten to make him look like an embittered loser who has turned to Islamic radicalism (even marrying one of them, godammit!) while Sasha is characterised as a former Stasi spy and failed radical. So much for the cover-up.

We go on to learn that Dimitri was a conman and actor hired to deceive both Sasha and Ted, who has taken a big payoff and retired to the States. We learn that Zara was arrested on arrival in Ankara and is being tortured until she corroborates the official story. We learn that a high-ranking British official published a ‘true’ account of Mundy’s life on an anonymous website (this would be Nick Amory), an account which was comprehensively rubbished by the powers-that-be and gullible journalists who, in le Carré’s view, are always easily impressed by the glamorous world of ‘intelligence’.

And the motive behind this elaborate and murderous scam? Germany had refused to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ which invaded Iraq. This entire incident and the deaths of Sasha and Ted were engineered to terrify German public opinion, helped along by paid articles from America-friendly journalists, designed to bring pressure to bear on the German Chancellor to fall into line with US foreign policy, with the American military-industrial hyperpower which, in le Carré’s view, has gone mad, and is undermining the whole world.


A spot of biography

Le Carré’s father, on the evidence of his own interviews and the recent biography of him, was a world class con-man, who gathered round him gangs of collaborators and conspirators who all agreed with the Chief and supported his mad schemes. Within this small world, tightly knit together by its secrets and conspiracies, to the growing boy John all the adult characters around him seemed larger than life figures, with superhuman qualities.

This sense of a small, claustrophobic world in which everyone is a legend to everyone else is one of the hallmarks of le Carré’s fiction. A Perfect Spy is a great novel because it has the force of a barely fictionalised recap of le Carré’s odd childhood. The same sense of a magic circle of large-than-life characters is strongly felt in Single & Single where the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single lords it over his gang, and also in The Night Manager where ‘the worst man in the world’, Richard Roper, lords it over another close-knit bunch of cronies.

The narrator of le Carré’s fictions is always an interloper into these secret worlds, an outsider, attracted and repulsed by their phony charisma, who ends up overturning them. Thus Tiger’s son, Oliver, betrays his father, and Roper’s protégé Jonathan Pine, betrays his slick arms dealer chief.

As part of his odd childhood, young le Carré was packed off to a series of boarding schools where he encountered another self-enclosed, self-regarding world full of ‘legendary’ masters and ‘fabled’ young stars of the cricket pitch or concert hall or whatever.

From which he progressed to Oxford University, also notorious for promoting its members, either undergraduate or faculty, to mythical status.

And then, after a spell of teaching at Eton (another institution not shy of turning its masters and pupils into legends) on to the Intelligence Service, another inward-looking organisation, also not slow to lionise its leading lights, such as good old Kim Philby, solid chap.

This background of a whole series of cliqueish little worlds full of people telling each other how terrific they are, I think, explains the often smothering cliqueyness of much of le Carré’s fiction, which consistently concerns itself with small groups of figures who all regard each other as legends and stars.

The Constant Gardener is ostensibly about criminality in the worldwide pharmaceutical industry and takes the hero (the Old Etonian Justin Quayle) from Africa to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and back in his quest for the truth. But in his mind he never leaves – and the narrative never really shakes free from – the small number of People Like Us in the Nairobi High Commission where we first meet him, their secrets and lies, all conveyed in dialogue dripping with the privileged slang and superior attitude of their gilded circle.

Use of the word ‘our’ in the fiction of John le Carré

Thus, in these later novels, all too many of the characters are ‘legendary’ and ‘fabled’, larger-than-life super-characters who simply everyone knows, darling. This verbal habit is like a chummy arm round the shoulder of the reader pushing you to buy into these cliquey circles, an over-familiar embrace which le Carré’s many fans eagerly welcome or don’t notice, but which this reader, for one, coldly resists.

It also explains why le Carré has a funny relationship with the word ‘our’. ‘Our’ is a ‘possessive determiner’ (according to linguistics) which, when used factually, simply conveys that something belongs to two or more people, one of whom is me. Our car, our house, our country.

But in le Carré’s hands it is used in a number of ways to compel the reader into the myth-making world of his ‘legendary’ characters, to pressure the reader into seeing things his, and their, way, to acquiescing in their overblown heroic status and the generally bombastic mind-set which surrounds them.

Thus JLC characters are regularly over-sold as ‘our’ hero this, ‘our very own’, ‘our dear old’ so and so. I noticed it prominently throughout this text:

… our own dear Neville Chamberlain… our beloved British monarchy… Ted Mundy, our Hyde Park Corner orator… our poor King Ludwig… our recently appointed misanthrope…

It is part of the general tone of smothering, over-familiar, hugger-muggerness, the sense that you are being jostled and coerced into a gang of upper-class twits who you would normally cross the road to avoid, which can make reading his novels feel more like an endurance test than a pleasure.

He uses the word ‘our’ to do a number of things:

1. To be vastly patronising – ‘… the photograph of our dear old queen…’ (p.148) conveys a sense that ordinary people like the Queen but you and I, dear boy, ha ha, we are so much more sophisticated and worldly wise, eh.

2. Appropriating historical or eminent figures to our cause or discourse, while simultaneously looking down on them – ‘our poor King Ludwig..’ (p.18)

3. To pour scorn and derision on political leaders – ‘Bush and Blair, our two great war leaders…’

4. To show how superior one is to history by mocking it – ‘When our Dear Führer came to power..’ (p.75) ‘… our dear Führer’s old Olympic stadium..’ (p.147) ‘our gallant British forces liberating the imperilled Suez Canal..’ (p.255)

5. To conceal anger beneath mockery – ‘As a young woman she [Sasha’s mother] was of course repeatedly raped by our victorious Russian liberators’ (p.78) Referring to the Stasi interrogation centre in East Germany as ‘… our White Hotel in East Prussia..’ (p.189)

6. To puff up his characters in that mock heroic, facetiously superior upper class drawl – ‘our very own hero of the hour’; one of the teenage actors is described as ‘Lexham, our Jamaican Macbeth…’ (p.136)

7. Loftily mocking the act of communication – ‘… for the benefit of our British and American readers…’ (p.86)

8. Normal, standard use of ‘our’, striking for its rarity – ‘Our targets for tonight are…’ (p.84) ‘our fellow activists..’ (p.90)

9. ‘Our’ as a dialect usage of working class people – Kate’s working class, northern father always refers to her as ‘our Kate’ (p.204)

10. Most of all for a self-mocking exaggeration of his own characters, as if the whole novel is a witty in-joke among public school People Like Us:

  • Ulrike our moral angel, our leading leftist, high priestess of the Alternative Life… (p.83)
  • Sasha our charismatic orator, our coming man for the leader’s throne, our Quasimodo of the social genesis of knowledge… (p.90)
  • Sasha our charismatic Socrates.. (p.119)
  • Sasha the great double agent (p.264)

This kind of pompous, overblown, superior, knowing mockery stands in for analysis throughout the book. What underlies all its forms is the breezily arrogant superiority of the true public school article, the upper-class disdain for the ordinary view, for normal phrasing, for anything which isn’t detached and ironised.

Cartoon characterisation

Something similar is going on with the tendency not just to name a character, but repeatedly to blow him up to mock-heroic proportions. We see and hear a lot of Ted’s thoughts and actions, but the narrator also overblows and mocks him in a series of comic, third-person cartoons as if he was a cardboard cutout of a human being:

  • First thing in the morning the chaste English boarding-school boy and as yet unbruised recruit to the cause of world liberation springs forth from his field bed… (p.71)
  • The good soldier is not fazed… The aspiring novelist likes to spread his notebook… (p.72)
  • ‘Ted Mundy, life’s eternal apprentice…’ (p.100)
  • ‘The former head prefect and cricketing hero signs up with a rural preparatory school…’ (p.106)

Why describe a character’s emotions when you can big him up with bombastic, if self-mocking, grandiosity? This mockery owes more to P.G. Wodehouse than the thriller tradition.

Endless comparisons to boarding school

So many English public school-educated writers seem never to escape their childhood, with the result that almost everything around them reminds them of their dear old alma mater:

  • Teddy tends to announce himself ‘in his best head prefect voice.’ (p.63)
  • Life in Berlin begins ‘for the chaste English boarding-school boy.’ (p.71)
  • Those students who don’t leave the squat in summer are ‘like uncollected children in a boarding school.’ (p.73)
  • When Ted meets his MI6 controller, his first thought is ‘whether Amory is one of the prefects who beat him in the washroom.’ (p.97)
  • As he starts his career as a spy, Ted is so scared ‘it’s like opening the bowling for the public schools at Lords every time…’ (p.225)
  • ‘To Mundy they look more like cricket umpires than removal men.’ (p.331)
  • When he puts her on the plane to Turkey, Zara clings so tight to Mundy, that ‘he imagines she is his daughter and he is sending her off to boarding school against her will.’ (p.345)

Is that really the most powerful comparison the text can think up for a terrified woman clinging to her only security in the world? This continual drawing of the wider world back into the bubble of upper-class English public school experiences, slang and attitudes, has a reductive effect on the imagination. Although the narrative travels widely across Europe and tells you it is taking in the world-spanning implications of the American military-industrial complex, it is fighting a losing battle against the narrowing impact of the le Carré’s relentlessly public school and cricket mindset.


The big issue

Belatedly, I realised that most of JLC’s post-Cold War novels gravitate around a Big Geopolitical ‘Issue’. (It reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s early plan to write a novel about each of the vices, starting with Hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit and then Pride in Dombey and Son, before he quietly dropped his plan.) Thus each of the novels deals with a Big Topic:

  • The Night Manager – the international arms trade
  • Our Game – not clear
  • The Tailor of Panama – US intervention in Latin America
  • Single & Single – City institutions laundering money for the wicked (Georgian drug suppliers)
  • The Constant Gardener – multinational pharmaceuticals resorting to conspiracy and murder to protect their profits
  • Absolute Friends – untamed aggression of global hyperpower (America) run riot

The big issue which this long fiction leads up to is the alleged stranglehold on Western culture, education and media exercised by a new, all-pervading and toxic American military-industrial complex.

‘If you tell a big lie long enough everyone will believe it,’ le Carré has Sasha yell at Ted – ‘and then anybody who speaks out against it can be labelled mad.’

Dimitri has a long speech about the evil of Bush and Blair, the wickedness of their war, the stifling of free speech. Ted nods his acquiescence.

Does it matter that a thriller contains or ends on some kind of political message? Not necessarily, no.

Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels contain references throughout to the wickedness of the East German state, without denting the novels’ plausibility because the thought is integrated into the narrative.

Similarly, Robert Harris’ terrifying bestseller Fatherland contains harrowing indictments of the Nazi régime, but the indictment is wholly integrated into the plot, and the seamlessness of that integration is a large part of the reason it is so satisfying as a novel.

Martin Cruz Smith’s novels manage to be very exciting but at the same time to shed fascinating light on the repressive nature of the countries and systems he is depicting (Russia, Cuba).

Even a comedy like Tom Sharpe’s Wilt On High can end on a page-long diatribe against the madness of nuclear weapons and not be damaged by it because it arises naturally out of the plot (and is all the more effective because Sharpe and his character Wilt are, on the whole, right wing and ridicule lefty politics so their anger is all the more impactful).

But it fails in this novel because it is simply so unsubtle. If JLC was already angry at the lies and hypocrisies of ‘our masters’ in the 1990s, he goes bananas after the invasion of Iraq. Just before this novel was published he wrote an opinion piece in the Times newspaper, The United States of America Has Gone Mad (link below) which I found embarrassing in its strident simple-mindedness.

If I was Arundhati, George, Naomi and all the rest, I would be flattered to be namechecked in a John le Carré novel, but also embarrassed at the guileless shoutiness of the context.

At key moments, and their central points, all these books lack analytical intelligence. Emotional depth? Often. Colourful ability with language? Yes (if much given to bombast and exaggeration). Cunning plotlines? Certainly. The artful creation of multi-levelled timeframes? Emphatically yes.

But when a character has to explain the exact geopolitical crux, the issue firing the whole narrative, the great wrong which must be understood – time and again JLC gives the speech to a drunk, bombastic, over-the-top or imbecile character: to the moronic Larry Pettifer in Our Game, to the oafish Jonah in Tailor of Panama, to the ridiculously implausible ‘Dimitri’ in Absolute Friends.

It is revealing that the first two characters are bigged up to ‘legendary’ status – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – because in these crux scenes le Carré doesn’t analyse (let alone dramatise): he creates a loud, shouty character and effectively says, ‘Look everybody – this guy is really famous and really clever and he thinks it’s a bad thing, so you should, too.’

It’s also dismayingly characteristic that these Voices of Truth swear a lot as if swearing guarantees the truth o what’s being sworn about:

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle…’ (Jonah, Tailor of Panama, p.290)

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (Larry, Our Game, p.138)

Instead of subtle and understated analysis, le Carré has the key explanations of the big theme of each of his post-Cold War novels delivered by over-hyped, swearing drunks.

What’s ultimately so dismaying and demoralising isn’t what le Carré is saying, it’s its complete unoriginality: when you read the long speeches the characters are given telling you that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t justified, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that the Bush presidency was electorally invalid, that Tony Blair shamelessly sucked up to George Dubya for nothing, that the hysteria around the War on Terror was cranked up by the corporate-owned media in order to boost the profits of the arms industry, and so on – who among le Carré’s liberal readership is going to disagree with any of this?

Like all his readers I know al this already because I read about it in the papers all the time. I just don’t care very much because:

a) There is nothing I can do about it.
b) It is the way of the world. Which war in the past 150 years wasn’t good for the arms industry? Which British Prime Minister of the last sixty years hasn’t sucked up to an over-mighty America?
c) That was then. Things have moved on a lot since 2004.

Either le Carré’s arguments should be made much more forensically, analytically, dispassionately, and zero in on precise wrong-doings; or they should be woven much more cannily into the narrative (à la Robert Harris’s much more canny novels). But they do neither and feel too simple minded to be effective, too bolted onto the main plot to have as much dramatic impact as they should.

The combined effect, in this novel especially, is to make le Carré’s views look childish and shallow.


My little pony

I have a bet with my son that every post-Cold War le Carré novel will contain a reference to a private school character having a little pony. In his previous three novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies or of competing in the local gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama, Quayle finds a photo of Tessa’s first pony in The Constant Gardener).

Disappointingly, the main character in Absolute Friends does not have a my-little-pony memory but… the receptionist at the Bedford Square house where Ted goes to see his back-up team during his spying days, is ‘a jolly girl called Laura with freckles and a pony club smile’ (p.210).

So I’m still just about winning my bet. I just need there to be a pony reference in his last four novels and I win a pound.


Credit

Absolute Friends by John le Carré was published in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton. All page references are to the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
1962 A Murder of Quality – Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover – His one attempt at a ‘serious’ novel and, allegedly. his worst book.
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
1979 Smiley’s People – The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
1986 A Perfect Spy – Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
1989 The Russia House – Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
1993 The Night Manager – Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – the legendary Larry Pettifer who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia – and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma – in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but eminently dislikeable upper-class twits.
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Old Etonian conman Andrew Osnard flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, the legendary Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based in a fictional revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced with a sick and jaundiced world.
1999 Single & Single – Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically ‘the Orlov brothers’ from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Astonishingly posh diplomat’s wife, Tessa Quayle, discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results among its poor and powerless patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining the events leading up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s prolonged quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Former public school head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage. This in turn comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha contacts Ted again and unwittingly lures him into a Machiavellian American sting operation, whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, a set-up which climaxes with them being shot down like dogs. First ‘historic’ part good – second part overblown anti-Americanism.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, is invited by British intelligence to lend his knowledge of arcane African languages and dialects to an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions. These have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, ostensibly in the name of negotiating peace, but who are actually planning to engineer a coup and impose a compliant leader who will allow his Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources. When Salvo learns this he sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee and, along with him, the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious German plan is itself trumped by the CIA who betray all the characters in the book, violently kidnap the two Muslims, and take them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor – An Oxford don and his barrister girlfriend on holiday in Antigua get involved with a Russian mafiosi who wants to ‘defect’ to the British, exposing ‘corruption in high places’ – and end up playing crucial roles in the mission to rescue him and his family which, however, does not go according to plan.
2013 A Delicate Truth – British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers evidence that his Minister helped arrange an extraordinary rendition, involving US mercenaries, British soldiers and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high value terrorist on Gibraltar except there was no terrorist. Instead a Muslim woman and her baby were shot to ribbons. Three years later, the retired FO man, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn is approached out of the blue by one of the British soldiers who’s been haunted by the debacle, and this triggers a joint attempt by him and Toby to present the evidence to their superiors, to confront the architect of the fiasco, and then to inform the Press – in all of which they miserably fail.

Archangel by Robert Harris (1998)

Go back to New York, Dr Kelso, and play your games of history in somebody else’s country, because this isn’t England or America, the past isn’t safely dead here. In Russia, the past carries razors and a pair of handcuffs.’ (p.167)

Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso is a historian of modern Russia. Described by one Sunday supplement as a ‘battered Byron’, he is in fact ‘a fattening and hungover middle-aged historian in a black corduroy suit’ (p.55). He’s overweight, drinks too much, despises his colleagues and has for many years devoted more time and energy to appearing on the telly and churning out articles and reviews for fashionable magazines than doing any actual historical research, and hence the envy and contempt of his peers.

He along with a cross-selection of colleagues are gathered at a mind-numbingly boring conference about archives and research in the newly post-communist Russia. Kelso’s three marriages and three subsequent divorces, his general air of shambling drunken disreputableness, the way he drinks so much he throws up and the next morning causes a kerfuffle when he hungoverly stumbles out of the first lecture of the day, all this gives him the feel of a Kingsley Amis character.

But he is a Kingsley Amis character thrown into a gripping thriller, because the reason he’s so hungover is that he was up half the night drinking with a mysterious, raddled old Muscovite who had attended one of his anti-communist lectures, tutting all the way through, and had then cornered the good doctor to put him ‘right’ about Comrade Stalin. Over drinks in his shabby hotel room Kelso and the Russkie – Papu Rapava – get really drunk while Papu pours out his heart about how misunderstood kind Comrade Stalin was.

In the middle of the tears and vodka Rapava tells an extraordinary story about being present at Stalin’s death. He had been a young security guard to Lavrenty Beria, the feared head of Soviet Secret Police, when one night he was summoned to drive his boss out to Stalin’s dacha. Here they found the old tyrant lying paralysed by a stroke on a sofa. Instead of calling for a doctor, Beria ordered Rapava to help him look for a key, the key to Stalin’s safe. When Rapava finds it, stashed down the sofa beside the comatose dictator, Beria orders him to drive them back to Moscow, to the Kremlin, where Beria bluffs his way past the guards and then uses the key to open Stalin’s private safe and take from it a metal box containing Stalin’s most private papers. Then they drive to Beria’s Moscow house, where Beria orders Rapava to bury the box in the back garden. And then they drive back to Stalin’s dacha in time to be present with other officials at Stalin’s actual death (it took three days, apparently).

However, in the turmoil following the dictator’s death, Beria is himself arrested, tortured and then executed. Rapava, as his security guard and driver, finds himself sentenced to fifteen years in a labour camp above the Arctic circle, experiences which he gruesomely recounts to the pissed Kelso… But, he drunkenly tells Kelso, he never told anyone, he hugged his secret all this time…

While Kelso is throwing up in the loo, Rapava staggers to his feet and out of the hotel, and although Kelso pathetically chases him down the stairs, across the lobby and out into the freezing night, he loses him. Damn.

Next day Kelso tells his closest confidante among the delegates about this strange encounter, and decides to track Rapava down. First of all he goes to visit a scary relic of the communist regime, Vladimir Mamantov, to interview him about the notebook, to try and get background information from one of the few surviving communists who were in Stalin’s circle. But Mamantov immediately pounces on Kelso’s hints. The notebook?’ Mamantov says. ‘Stalin’s notebook, the one referred to in all the memoirs but which was never found?’ Hmm. Maybe not such a good idea to have let him know. Kelso departs with a bad feeling…

Russian spies

At this point the narrative switches to follow Major Feliks Suvorin and Lieutenant Vissari Netto of the Russian security service. It turns out that they are monitoring Mamantov’s apartment and phone calls. Mamantov is still a threatening political presence. He took part in the 1991 coup against Gorbachev and was imprisoned for 18 months, but now he’s at liberty again, with widespread connections and the money to fund an unreconstructed communist magazine, Aurora.

Thus the security services tap Kelso’s phone call to Mamantov and their subsequent conversation. Thus they learn about the fabled Stalin notebook. Shortly after Kelso’s visit Mamantov’s mad, old wife leaves the building with her minder for her regular morning walk. When she doesn’t return for some time, then not at all, the watching officers nervously realise something’s up. When they break into the apartment they find his wife tied and bound in the wardrobe. Mamontov had dressed in her clothes to fool them, escape surveillance and is now on the loose.

R.J. O’Brian

So now Kelso, Mamatov and the security services are all after the fabled notebook. That night Kelso goes to the bar where the drunken Rapava had told him his prostitute daughter works, the Robotnik, in a bid to track down Rapava. Here Kelso bumps into a brash, loud American TV journalist, R.J. O’Brian, who, it turns out, also knows all about the notebook. How? He’d been hanging round the conference centre and the academic Kelso confided in had told him (the swine). So now Kelso, O’Brian, Mamantov and Russian security are all after the damn notebook.

Rapava’s daughter

Kelso gets the barman to point out Papava’s daughter, Zinaida, who turns out to be a battle-hardened whore, well used to fleecing foreign tourists. Kelso only wants her to drive him to her father’s apartment but she insists on the full rate ($400). She dumps him in a terrifying urban wasteland of badly built high-rises on the outskirts of Moscow, telling him the block, floor and apartment number.

In a tense, scary scene Kelso makes his way in the late-night darkness through the utterly empty snow-swept high rises, climbing the piss-smelling, vomit-strewn stairwell up to Rapava’s apartment where he finds the door hanging off its hinges and the flat more systematically ripped to pieces than anything he’s ever seen. Foolishly, he enters and investigates, eventually coming across the bathroom sink full of blood and shreds of scalp with hair attached. He stumbles back out towards the lift – only to find Rapava’s body hanging from the lift cables – or what’s left of his body, completely eviscerated, looking more like a side of beef, and with his penis cut off and shoved into what’s left of his mouth.

In the police station

Kelso runs to the nearest apartment and gets them to call the police. He finds himself being arrested and taken to the cells where he spends a very worrying night. But in the morning he is not charged or beaten up under interrogation (as he feared), but released into the care of one of the security officers we’ve been getting to know in the parallel sequence of scenes about them, notably the young westernised Major Feliks Suvorin.

Suvorin asks Kelso why he went to see such a dangerous man as Mamantov? Does he realise that by mentioning the notebook he signed Rapava’s death warrant – for it was Mamantov, when still a senior KGB official, who had interrogated Rapava after the fall of Beria, and then upon his release from the labour camp. Thus he knew that all the other witnesses to Stalin’s death were dead. Thus he knew that what Kelso took for his own clever and subtle references to ‘a contact’ who had mentioned the notebook, could be only one person. Thus Mamantov absconded from his apartment and went direct to torture and murder Rapava. ‘And you know what, Dr Kelso? Now he may come looking for you.’

This is the scene where the quote from the top of the page comes, with Suvorin telling Kelso he is out of his depth in the jungle which is post-communist Russia. ‘Go back to the West. Leave while you are still alive.’ Then Suvorin drives him back to the hotel and tells him to catch the flight home along with the other academics. Here Kelso showers and tries to wash away the horrors of the previous night.

Zinaida’s note

The next morning he joins the waiting historians filtering into the big tourist coach, jostled along by their ‘minder’, Olga, with her prodding umbrella, to be driven off to Sheremetevo airport. At the last moment Kelso is cornered by O’Brian who wants them to go 50-50 on the ‘scoop’, but Kelso says, ‘No deal’ and happily drives off with the others to the airport. Here they bicker and catfight as only academics can, but then Kelso sees Zinaida standing on the other side of the departure lounge glass. He goes outside to talk to her and she lures him into the nearby multi-story car park where she reveals that her father had visited her just a few days ago, drunk and apologetic, and left her a scribbled letter. It says he left her something valuable – and tells her where it’s hidden. It must be the notebook!

Kelso looks at his colleagues queuing up to go through passport control. He knows his visa has only one more day to run after which he will be staying in Russia illegally. He knows it is crazy to go with a mercenary and unreliable prostitute. But he is not just a historian, he is bitten by the deeper bug of needing to know. He gets into the car. He says, ‘take me there.’

In the lock-up

Zinaida drives Kelso to the derelict garages, part of the complex of high rises where he found Rapava’s body. Presumably the police didn’t know that Rapava owned a garage and he went to his death, heroically defying incomprehensible torture pain, not revealing it, so his daughter could have it, it and whatever money it brings. A bitter gift from a distant and difficult father. Now Kelso jumps down into the garage well and, pulling away the sides, quickly comes across a metal box. Inside is a leather folder containing a notebook and papers! It is at this moment that the garage door opens from the outside.

It is a typically heart-stopping moment in a novel full of them: will it Mamantov and his psychopath torturers? Will they eviscerate the girl in front of Kelso and then start on him? But no, it is in fact the irritating, boosterish Yank TV journalist, O’Brian. Zinaida, the hard-bitten whore, pulls the gun she always carries and there is a tense stand-off, which Kelso helps reconcile into a deal. O’Brian will pay Zinaida for the book; and gets to film Kelso re-enacting the discovery then opening the notebook then reading it.

Stalin’s notebook

In fact, the notebook turns out to be completely different from what everyone expected. Far from being some kind of record of the great dictator’s mind and plans, it turns out to be the diary of a 21-year-old girl, Anna Safanova, a keen Komsomol Party member, born and raised in Archangel in Russian’s far north. The diary begins as Anna is plucked from provincial obscurity and invited to come and work at Stalin’s dacha, where she is instructed by the head of the staff in all his little ways and foibles. The diary describes her excitement at this amazing stroke of luck, and logs the fairly innocuous moments over the coming weeks until the moment when Stalin asks her to dance for him one evening – at which point the journal breaks off. Kelso notes that the next forty or so pages have been carefully torn out.

Turning to the other papers in the folder, Kelso quickly realises they amount to an official profile of Anna Safanova, appraising her fitness, genetic inheritance, ideological commitment and so on. Kelso and Zinaida both realise at the same time that she was one of a number of fit, healthy, young women brought to Stalin for him to breed with. Anna’s diary breaks off at the point the Great Leader made his pass at her. Zinaida is physically sick. She throws the notebook at the men, ‘Take the damned thing… Take it. Keep it.’ (p.224)

But O’Brian asks the key question: ‘Could this Anna Safanova possibly still be alive? Whatever happened to her? Let’s go up to Archangel and find out: are you up for that, Dr Kelso?’ And Kelso, like a fool, agrees.

The drive to Archangel

The two men load a four-by-four with petrol, food, filming and editing equipment and set off on the long, long drive to Archangel in the frozen north. After the gruelling journey they arrive to find it a shabby backwater but manage to bluff their way into the local party headquarters where they bribe a resentful old communist to open up the local files. The files covering the two years when Anna Safanova would have joined the communist party are mysteriously missing – but the official comes up with the surprising news that Anna’s mother is still alive.

Meanwhile, Suvorin picks up and interrogates Zinaida. She’s tough so he drives her to the morgue where he shows her her father’s tortured body. She screams and collapses. ‘This is what they’ll do to you and Kelso when they find him; so where is he?’ She tells him. She tells him Kelso and O’Brian have the notebook and have driven to Archangel to find the girl whose diary it is. Suvorin calls his office and makes arrangements for a plane to fly him north.

Meanwhile, Kelso and O’Brian drive to the rundown clapboard house of Vavara Safanova, now a bent 85-year-old crone. She gives vivid descriptions of her childhood after the revolution, she remembers the British ships which arrived to put it down in 1918, her education, joining the party and marriage to Mikhail. Then she recalls their daughter, Anna, her birth and childhood and growing up beautiful, a devoted communist, and how it was these qualities which made the local party recommend her to take part in a mass Komsomol parade in Moscow – and then a few weeks later, the mysterious summons, to return to Moscow and become an assistant to senior party leaders.

Eight months later Anna returned to Archangel heavily pregnant. When the baby was due, she haemorrhaged and the doctors couldn’t save her, but they saved the baby, a boy. Vavara and her husband never saw him. He was sent to be fostered by a family named Chizhikov in a settlement east of Archangel. She points it out on O’Brian’s map, at the end of a single road, deep in the taiga. One day her husband set off to the settlement to find the child. Five days later his dead body came floating down the river. He’d had a heart attack, they said…

O’Brian overcomes all Kelso’s objections – the road will be dreadful, there’ll be no gas stations or hotels, it will be snowy wilderness, it will be dangerous – and insists they drive out there straightaway. They set off and it takes hours, as the road by the river gives way to snow-covered track and then to just a deeply snowed-in gap between the endless tress on either side. Harris vividly describes the eeriness of snowy forest, and Kelso’s mounting anxiety. They are driving slowly enough to notice a clearing off to one side and – hang on – is that smoke? At that moment the 4-by-4 hits a really big rut and the whole front end nose-dives into it and the car stalls.

In the forest

The novel now takes on the intensity and spine-chilling quality of a horror story. Kelso and O’Brian walk towards the settlement of houses, noting the smoke has now ceased. It is completely abandoned and ruined. They notice a small cemetery of graves off to one side and Kelso notes that some of the photos – placed Russian-style on each grave – have been defaced. O’Brian says he’ll go back to the car to get the satellite phone. He is gone a long time. When Kelso follows his tracks they go back to the car alright, but then off into the woods in the opposite direction. The novel becomes very scary. Moving warily through the close-knit deep-snowed-in trees Kelso hears a moaning and a creaking sound. He comes across O’Brian caught in a rope snare, hanging upside down by his ankle from a tree. Kelso cuts him down and O’Brian moans something about ‘I saw him’. At that moment Kelso becomes aware of a primitive ape-like face staring at him from between the trees.

Stalin’s son

A rough, rude peasant in animal skins and boots emerges from the pine and shepherds them at gun point to a basic cabin in another part of the woods, skirting the booby traps and mantraps he has planted everywhere. ‘Are you the ones?’ he asks them, ‘the promised ones?’ He sits them down and then shaves with a razor sharp knife, taking off his beard to reveal a full bushy black moustache; and then changes his clothes to put on a Russian military uniform. Kelso is shocked, horrified: it is Stalin to the life. Without a doubt this is the son, the son of the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century, of all time.

What emerges over the next few pages is too weird to be true, but is true: Stalin’s son by Anna Safanova was spirited off into this isolated settlement where he was brought up by four couples of hand-picked fanatical communists, indoctrinating him with his father’s beliefs, making him listen to endless gramophone records of Stalin’s speeches, making him read and reread the twelve volumes of Stalin’s Collected works until, as now, before Kelso and O’Brian, he does a word perfect imitation of his father, lazily half closing his eyes, enquiring why they are so nervous, putting the fear of God into them.

As the boy came of age, he began flexing his psychological powers and tyrannising his minders. As a teenager he found one of his guardian guilty of ‘defeatism’. He was the first to be interrogated and executed. Then there was an outbreak of ‘right-deviationism’, as some of them discussed giving up and returning to civilisation. These criminals had to be punished. And then the sabotage started, as the fish in the river were poisoned and food went missing from traps. When one of the minders was found prowling round after curfew he too was interrogated, tortured and admitted all his crimes, before being executed. His wife hanged herself a week later.

Now Kelso realises the grisly significance of the little cemetery. One by one Stalin’s son had picked his minders and carers off until he was alone. In an appalling sidelight, Kelso gets to see papers on his desk, among the well-thumbed volumes of Stalin’s speeches, each of them headed ‘Confession’, and realises some of them are by outsiders who stumbled across the settlement, including two carefree hippy travellers in 1968. They too were tortured, interrogated and executed.

Kelso realises they are at the mercy of a paranoid psychopath, a kind of quintessence of Stalin who reveals the secret of Stalin’s success: creating an atmosphere of total fear.

The Spetsnaz

Meanwhile, Major Suvorin arrives in Archangel to find the local militia unhelpful to the point of rudeness. When he phones his boss back in Moscow he discovers the reason why: the story of the missing notebook having been found and Zinaida’s account of it recording the breeding and birth of Stalin’s son and heir, have reached the highest circles ie the President. And the order has come back to strangle and suppress it; to kill everyone involved; to kill the son but also the two foreigners.

The westernised Suvorin is appalled, but those are the orders. The militia who seemed so rude are members of the Spetsnaz, Russia’s special forces. Assassins. They mock the soft westernised Suvorin as he struggles to clamber into the big snowplough they’ve commandeered. They have earpiece radio comunications, black balaclavas and loads of machine guns. They set off in the snowplough up the same road Kelso and O’Brian took just a few hours before.

Meanwhile, Kelso and O’Brian are still in the hut, being lectured by Stalin’s son who is quoting his father’s speeches at length, thinking things can’t get much weirder – when a skull appears at the window. It is one of the Spetsnaz men. In one uncanny movement the son pulls up a trapdoor and disappears below the floorboards. At that moment the special forces burst into the hut, push Kelso and O’Brian up against the wall and handcuff their wrists. ‘Under the floorboards’, they say and a Spetsnaz man opens up with a machine gun, systematically perforating the floorboards with bullets till the magazine runs out. He slots in a new ammo clip and starts again. But when they pull up the trap door they find it leads to a tunnel. The son is on the loose.

To be brief – he kills them all, luring one man into a man-trap, and when another returns to help him, killing the second one then shooting the trapped one in the head. Then he hunts down the last one, the arrogant major. Bang. Dead.

During this slaughter Major Suvorin has finally clambered out of the snow plough and made it up to the hut. Here he releases Kelso and O’Brian and asks them what the hell is going on. All three of them hear the bursts of machine gun fire, the screaming, as in a very scary horror film. When Suvorin reluctantly goes back towards the snowplough he finds the corpses of the Spetsnaz men and the snowplough exploded and on fire. He is stuck here.

In his absence O’Brian takes the satellite radio into a clearing to try and call for help from the outside world. Kelso examines the papers on the son’s chaotic desk and is piecing together more of the terrible story of the settlement when the son magically reappears in the hut and shepherds Kelso towards the river, picking up O’Brian on the way. Here there is a boat with outboard motor, and into it they climb, pull the cord and out into the river they go. Suvorin hears the motor and runs in its direction through the trees, arriving to see the boat round a corner in the huge river. The sound dwindles to silence. He is on his own in his useless western clothes, abandoned in the middle of the Russian forest as the snow falls.

To their (and the reader’s) amazement and relief, Kelso and O’Brian find themselves arriving at Archangel, back in the real world after the hair-raising horror of the wilderness, and the son steering them into a quayside where they moor. As they go up the steps it seems as if the son’s expecting them to take the lead; they are, after all ‘the ones’ that he was expecting. They will know what to do next. In fact Kelso and O’Brian run for the nearest cab and fling dollars at the driver to take them to the station, where they jump the long Russian queue and throw more dollars at the ticket desk until they get tickets for the huge, long train which is about to pull out for Moscow.

On the train

They find their ‘sleeper’ compartment, make a meal of the crappy food they just had time to buy, stare at each other disbelievingly, and fall asleep, into a deep, deep sleep punctuated only by the announcements of all the little stations on their 800-mile journey. When Kelso awakes, he groggily realises he’s slept for 9 hours straight. Looking out the window he sees a picture of Stalin float by and thinks he must still be asleep and dreaming. But at the next settlement they pass through there are people holding up pictures of Stalin and Lenin; and at the next one, a village band has assembled and he catches a snatch of the old Soviet national anthem. Something weird is happening.

Kelso stumbles into the corridor and makes his way through the long, dirty, smelly and increasingly congested carriages. He has a growing sense of fear. When he opens the door to the fifth carriage his fears are confirmed. In the eerie and terrifying way the son was able to appear and disappear in the forest, had a sixth sense about the arrival of the Spetsnaz and effortlessly outwitted them – somehow, magically, he managed to make it onto the train.

Here he is, fast asleep, the spitting image of the virile young Stalin, and surrounded by an awed crowd of admirers. As the train pulls into a station, Kelso becomes aware of packs of black-uniformed young men getting onto the train and then he sees Vladimir Mamantov among them. Kelso runs in a panic back towards his compartment and grabs the folder with the notebook and papers in. He is about to start tearing them up when O’Brian comes fully awake and tries to stop him. They argue and O’Brian punches Kelso to the floor, but the latter manages to escape and run down the corridor, now pursued by some of the blackshirts.

He hurtles into a spare compartment, locks the door, gets out his cigarette lighter and sets the first paper alight… just as the door is kicked open and brutal hands wrench the paper and folder out of his grasp, pushing him down onto the seat and pinning him there. And then the grizzled, terrifying old communist party fanatic, Mamantov, enters the compartment and sits down, wagging an admonitory finger at foolish Dr Kelso.

Mamantov’s story

Mamantov tells him the full story. He knew about the notebook from the beginning. Rapava told him about it and where it was buried. Mamantov knew all about the girl Anna Safanova, about Archangel, about Stalin’s son. He had even travelled up there, out into the woods, and met him. But think about it – If he, Mamantov, announced that he had discovered Stalin’s son and heir in the middle of nowhere, nobody would believe him, they’d laugh at him and at this pathetically transparent ruse to get the communists back into power.

No, he needed someone who would verify it all for him, an objective authority. And who could be more objective than a historian, not just a Russian historian – too compromised – no, a western historian, ideally one with a well-known antipathy to Stalin and all his works. Someone like… the famous TV historian, Dr Christopher Kelso!

And so Mamantov had used his money and influence to arrange the entire conference that Kelso was attending, had ensured that Kelso’s name was on the guest list, had ensured that he actually attended. And it was Mamantov who arranged for comrade Rapava to sit in the front row tutting through Kelso’s lecture damning Stalin, and then to buttonhole Kelso and end up telling him all about the notebook. He had counted on Kelso’s addiction to history, his need to find the truth.

And he had paid O’Brian to film everything. It wasn’t a coincidence that O’Brian had attended the conference, pretending to be sniffing around for a story – because he knew the story well in advance. It wasn’t a coincidence that O’Brian was in the Robotnik nightclub when Kelso went to find Rapava’s daughter. It wasn’t a coincidence that O’Brian walked into the garage as Kelso uncovered the notebook. Because it had all been set up and planned in advance, so that every step of the way O’Brian could document and film the odyssey of an authoritative and sceptical western historian, who would validate every successive finding.

And when O’Brian left Kelso in the hut in the forest, as the son was dealing with the Spetsnaz forces, O’Brian wasn’t just ringing the outside world – he was sending his long report, complete with all the rushes, back to his TV station in America, a station which – out of courtesy – of course shared the report and rushes with Russian TV.

So that while Kelso slept, the sensational story had topped world newscasts, but especially Russian newscasts, for the past nine hours. Stalin had a son. He was brought up in the wild north woods, a rough and ready chip off the old block. Now he is returning to Moscow to heal Russia’s ills, to clean out the corruption, the prostitution and AIDS and drug addiction, to clear away the mafia and the corrupt politicians, to restore Russia to her former glory, a mighty nation to be feared and respected.

‘And all with your help, Dr Kelso. All with your invaluable help.’

At the station

Intercut with this dazzling revelation had been scenes at the HQ of security forces. While the train had been stationary at the stop where Mamantov and his black shirted men boarded it, the security forces had been asking their political leaders what to do: should they storm it to neutralise Mamantov and the son? But that risked a blaze of publicity, with attendant casualties and the possible death of Stalin’s son?

Down from the top comes the order: No. Let it be. Too risk. — Suddenly there is panic throughout the administration. In the office of the President they don’t know which way things will go, will the return of Stalin’s son lead to a popular uprising in his favour? So feverish, so febrile, is the atmosphere of post-communist Russia and Moscow which Harris has painted, that you believe anything is possible.

The head of security calls off all the surveillance on Mamantov and all records of it to be destroyed. If the son takes power, everyone had better start protecting their asses. He also calls off the guard which Suvorin had set on Zinaida’s apartment after he’d taken her to the morgue. So that when she wakes up and finds the security man at her door gone, she wonders what’s going on – then she switches on the TV. It is wall-to-wall coverage of Stalin’s son’s return. My God!

But she is her father’s daughter, tough as boots, and she takes the pistol he gave her and slips it into her handbag. She takes the metro to Moscow central station and, in her dark jacket and skirt and glasses, can pass for one of the most dedicated of the loyalists who are now flooding into the station, forming a huge crowd expecting the arrival of the new young master, Russia’s saviour.

She elbows her way to the front of the crowd, near to the podium which has been erected for the messiah to make his first speech. The train draws in and slows to a halt, the crowd go wild. A door opens and down steps the handsome charismatic man, spitting image of his father with his big black moustache, followed by the looming presence of Mamantov. They walk towards the podium and start climbing it to address the crowd and at that moment Zinaida draws the pistol from under her coat and takes aim.

And there the novel ends, leaving the future of Russia – and the world – hanging breathlessly in the balance.


The atrocity thriller

In his first three novels Harris perhaps created a new sub-genre, the atrocity thriller, a thriller which revolves around one of the great atrocities or horrors of the twentieth century. His first three novels revolve around, respectively: the Holocaust, the Katyn Massacre and Stalin’s purges. Because Kelso is a historian, Harris is able to intersperse the text with Kelso’s ‘lectures’, thus being able to give the reader devastating indictments of Stalin the man and politician.

In one of these lectures we learn of the way Stalin drove his wives to suicide and systematically murdered all his and their relatives. In another one, we are reminded of the incomprehensible scale of the suffering he imposed on the Russian people – the man-made famines of the 1930s caused by the stupid policy of forced collectivisation and the endless purges which continued right up to the eve of the Second World War and which fatally weakened the Red Army, ensuring it was defeated and pushed back deep into the heart of Russia before it could finally halt the Germans.

Professor I.A. Kuganov estimates that sixty-six million people were killed in the USSR between 1917 and 1953 – shot, tortured, starved mostly, frozen or worked to death. Others say the true figure is a mere forty-five million… Neither estimate, by the way, includes the thirty million now known to have been killed in the Second World War. (p.156)

The current population of Russia is 143.5 million; demographers calculate that, without the enormous loss of life caused by the Bolsheviks, by communism, and specifically by Stalin, the population would be nearer to 300 million. Has any man been responsible for more deaths anywhere at any time? It is the world record.

As with Fatherland and to some extent Enigma, just reading a factual account of the ‘background’ to the story, makes you feel sick.

Russia after the Soviet Union

And then there’s the foreground, the situation of Russia after the collapse of the USSR. Didn’t exactly turn into a capitalist paradise, did it? The end of communism was followed by a calamitous drop in GDP, incomes and welfare, drastic decline in life expectancy, accompanied by a surge in unemployment, alcoholism, drugs, in mafia gangs running drugs and prostitutes, a collapse into criminality at every level, as described by Martin Cruz Smith in his Arkady Renko novels.

All the characters refer to the broken-spirited shabbiness and unfettered criminality of post-communist Russia, there isn’t a building that hasn’t been vandalised or had swastikas spray-painted onto it, there isn’t an official who can’t be bribed or corrupted. It is an almost failed state, deeply humiliated and resentful, which Harris vividly captures in scores of details and bitter exchanges of dialogue, as well as the occasional bit of symbolism.

On the waterfront four giant Red Army men, cast in bronze, stood back to back, facing the four points of the compass, their rifles raised in triumph. At their feet, a pack of wild dogs scavenged among the trash. (p.266)

Style

Once again, Harris suits the style to the subject matter. The core of all his novels is basic ‘modern thriller prose’, but given a slightly different vibe for each book. Fatherland had a rangy American feel; Enigma was slightly but noticeably more formal and old-fashioned, befitting its 1940s setting. And this book’s thriller-speak is inflected towards the English non-public school slangy idiom of its protagonist (who, we learn, was the first boy from his provincial grammar school to go to Cambridge).

Thus a lot of the characters – the Russian gulag survivors, the Russian cops, Fluke and various other academics – say ‘fuck’ quite a lot (‘Fuck you’ says his third wife Margaret down the phone from New York, p.112) [and, as we know from the novels of Martin Cruz Smith, ‘Go fuck your mother’ (p.82, 161) is a favourite Russian expression].

Kelso’s idiom is already fairly coarse but the text becomes considerably more profane once O’Brian arrives with his yankee effing and blinding:

  • The sheer bloody tedium of academic life… (p.41)
  • The end of history, my arse, he thought. This was History’s town. This was History’s bloody country. (p.116)
  • It was vindication. Vindication for twenty years of freezing his arse off in basement archives… (p.193)
  • [O’Brian] raised his hands in disgust. ‘Shit, I can’t stand around here bitching all afternoon…’ (p.220)
  • Oh, fuck it, what did it matter? (p.238)
  • The Office of the President of the Federation had been on the line to Arsenyev, demanding to know (a direct quote from Boris Nikolaevich, apparently) what the fuck was going on? (p.256)
  • ‘Oh, go ahead, enjoy yourself,’ said O’Brian, bitterly. ‘This is my idea of a perfect fucking Friday. Drive eight hundred miles to some dump that looks like Pittsburgh after a nuclear strike to try to find Stalin’s fucking girlfriend -‘ (p.267)

I’m not objecting to the swearing; just pointing out that it’s one of the ways Harris differentiates the style and feel of this one, from the previous two novels.

Prolepsis

  • If Kelso had seen him full-face he probably wouldn’t have recognised him, and then everything would have turned out differently. (p.120)
  • Afterwards, Kelso was to recognise this as the decisive moment: as the point at which he lost control of events. (p.196)
  • It happened with a kind of inexorable logic so that later, when Kelso had the time to review his actions, he still could never identify a precise moment when he could have stopped it, when he could have diverted events on to a different course – (p.216)
  • I am trapped, thought Kelso. I am a victim of historical inevitability. Comrade Stalin would have approved (p.217)

All three of these novels use this device half a dozen times – of the narrator sign-posting important turning points in the narrative with an ominous ‘what if’. They not only indicate important hinges in the narrative but at the same time fill the reader with an undefined sense of dread, that things are going to turn out badly. And all because of a tiny moment, an accident, a coincidence, when things might have gone OK – but didn’t.

It’s a very effective tension-building device, as the novel proceeds into a realm of almost supernatural horror, creating a heart-stopping sense of dread and fear.


Credit

Archangel by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 1995. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Arrow Books paperback edition.

The TV series

Archangel was made into a three-part TV adaptation for BBC 1, starring Daniel Craig and broadcast in March 2005, just before his James Bond period started. Craig has the physiognomy of a hardened criminal so it’s always a surprise when he behaves polite and civilised and, as here, almost permanently cowering and scared, not how we normally picture him.

The first two-thirds of the dramatisation follow the book closely, but it makes a major departure when, instead of Zinaida washing her hands of the notebook, going back to her Moscow apartment and leaving the boys to it, in the TV version she teams up with Kelso to steal O’Brian’s car and it is they who drive all the way to Archangel, to track down and interview Anna’s mother together. I guess it’s just a law of film and TV drama that there needs to be a heterosexual love interest (and Kelso and Zinaida in the TV version do indeed end up snogging and shagging and worrying about each other – completely unlike in the novel).

In this version, O’Brian only catches up with them by hiring a private plane to fly him to Archangel. He arrives just after Kelso and Zinaida have had to flee from two ordinary Russian policemen who had been sniffing round their 4-by-4, taking flight and belting down snowy back alleys in an unconvincing chase scene (not in the novel). While they’re hiding behind a shed, a shiny BMW pulls up, a scary man in a leather jacket gets out and shoots both the cops dead at point-blank range. He is later revealed to be one of Mamantov’s crew but this scene, with its cynically sadistic violence involving the gross execution of a man already on the ground wounded, is not in the novel.

The scenes in the forest are also made to be more violent than the book. Instead of being on his own, the TV son-of-Stalin has two of the old minders still pottering about to help him. Well, the Spetsnaz just shoot them down in cold blood, with sickening brutality. But hey, using a cool silenced pistol which makes that cool schtook schtook sound. Almost always TV and film make novels more violent, and more cynically, disgustingly violent.

And instead of the three Spetsnaz men of the novel, in the TV version there are more like eight, not least so they can all jump out the back of an armoured vehicle to the accompaniment of thumping action music. These TV-version Spetsnaz threaten Kelso and O’Brian much more aggressively than in the book, and are on the brink of shooting our boys dead on the spot when Suvorin intervenes, holding a pistol to the Spetsnaz leader’s head in a melodramatic Mexican stand-off (not in the book).

It’s at this over-the-top moment that the son, hidden in the trees, shoots the first of the soldiers so that Kelso, O’Brian and Suvorin can take advantage of the ensuing confusion to turn and flee. Unfortunately, while his boys are dealing with the shooter, the hard-man leader of the Spetsnaz pursues our chaps through the woods, shooting Suvorin dead (not in the book) then shooting O’Brian dead (not in the book, in which he lives to accompany Kelso and the son back to Archangel by boat and then onto the train), then tracking Kelso down to the pier by the motorboat. Then, in a scene we’ve all seen in hundreds of movies, he slowly, gloatingly lifts his rifle to execute the cornered Kelso when – … you’ll never guess! A shot rings out and the baddy crumples to the floor! (Not in the novel.) Cut to a shot of the son-of-Stalin on the river bank, lowering his rifle. He has saved Kelso, who now jumps into the boat and putters off down the river and arrives in Archangel on his own, making it onto the train alone (unlike in the novel).

Instead of accompanying him (as in the book), in the TV version the son returns to the hut, dresses in his father’s field marshal uniform, and waits in a clearing for a helicopter – Mamantov’s helicopter – to arrive and collect him.

I prefer books and novels to TV drama and films because they can be so much subtler, more unexpected and thought-provoking. All the changes made in the TV version move it in the direction of empty cliché, clunky stereotype and – above all – substantially more and more unpleasant, violence – instead of jolting and surprising you as the novel consistently does.

It is interesting, unexpected and satisfying that in the novel Zinaida remains a tough bitch, who in no way gets close to Kelso, instead maintaining her independence and aloofness. It is lowering, deadening and thumpingly predictable that in the TV version Kelso and Zinaida end up having a ‘romance’ (‘Be careful darling,’ she whispers to him outside Vavara’s cottage as he and O’Brian prepare to drive off into the forest, obviously without her – for ‘This is man’s work, honey.’ It might as well be a 1950s Western – tired, predictable and revoltingly sexist.)

Not only does the characterisation become cruder, but TV and film invariably make stories like this more violent, blood-thirsty, cruel and sadistic. The unnecessary execution of the policemen is followed by the unnecessary execution of the old couple in the woods and followed by the unnecessary execution of Suvorin and then of O’Brian. All this violence ends up merely shocking for its own sake, sickening and then deadening the nerves. In the novel the violence is kept to the minimum needed in order to create a powerful feeling of dread ie only three Spetsnaz are killed by the son, just enough to create a sense of his almost supernatural mastery of the woods. In the TV version it is just bang you’re dead, bang you’re dead, bang you’re dead. The effect is deadening – dulling the mind and the senses.

The novel ends with an amazing cliff-hanger, with Zinaida pulling out her pistol to shoot the son but then stopping – leaving none of us knowing what happens next, whether she shoots or misses. This creates an awesome effect, a powerful last twist to the fiction, letting our imaginations run wild about what might happen next, including the Nightmare Scenario where Stalin’s son lives to take over modern Russia.

All of this, along with all its possible consequences and implications, along with everything thought-provoking and intelligent and suspenseful, is discarded in the TV version. Here Zinaida just pulls out her pistol and shoots the son dead. Bang you’re dead (again). End of. All over. Yawn. Time to turn off the TV and go to bed.

Is it a law that TV and film adaptations of books must make them duller, less imaginative, more clichéd, more sexist, more violent and more insultingly stupid?

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

Enigma by Robert Harris (1995)

His hand paused on the ignition key. ‘Do you think, Miss Wallace,’ he said, hesitantly, ‘in view of the circumstances, we might now risk first-name terms.’
She gave him a faint smile. ‘Hester.’
‘Tom.’
They shook hands. (p.249)

The man wih the nervous breakdown

This is a thriller about a mentally disturbed man, Tom Jericho. Young, frail, over-sensitive, unusually gifted at maths, he was recruited in 1939 to work for the new top secret government code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park, a suburb of what is now Milton Keynes but was then a small town surrounded by countryside.

Bletchley Park and Enigma

Here Tom is one of the pioneers, one of the handful of mathematicians, logicians and linguists tasked with breaking the so-called Enigma code, generated by the estimated 100,000 Enigma coding machines distributed across Germany’s military operations – in the Army, the Luftwaffe, sending weather reports, intelligence, operational orders, updates back and forth to Berlin and – crucially for our hero – used to control the U-boat operations which are causing such havoc among the merchant shipping steaming daily from the US to Britain with vital supplies.

For four long years Tom works alongside the famous theorist of computers, Alan Turing, and other geniuses, as they develop the techniques and the number-crunching machines – the so-called bombes – which help them crack the Enigma codes – for there are anything up to ten different flavours or variations of the code, the one Tom has been concerned with being nick-named Shark (because it is used by the U-boats).

Over that period Bletchley has hugely expanded, with barrack-like huts springing up across the grounds of the mansion, along with a huge mess hall which can seat 600 to shovel down the disgusting war-time meals. Hundreds and then thousands more staff have arrived, to decode not only Enigma but all other German transmissions, to decode and translate and pass on to the relevant British and Allied authorities, to record and store this information in a vast archive and into innumerable work books and reference books. It’s become almost a small town devoted to the vast, compendious task of cracking and recording all German military messages.

Claire Romilly

Working ceaseless shifts, taking little care of his body or mind, Jericho is already in a delicate state when he finds himself squashed up next to an attractive worldly young woman on the train back from London – a Miss Claire Romilly. To his surprise she invites him for a date (to an amateur concert) and then, a week later, on another date to the grotty Bletchley cinema, and then back to her poky cottage out in the country, where she proceeds to seduce the embarrassed young man.

Tom is a geeky nerd to begin with, and his health was already hanging in the balance – this affair is enough to overwhelm him, physically and mentally. He becomes besotted with Claire, buying her presents, obsessing about her all the time, and they have more dates, and more sex, for a few more weeks. But then one night, as she is jokily leafing through his wallet and pockets and coat, Tom finds himself getting cross and asks, then shouts at her, to stop. Unexpectedly, Claire recoils and curls up on the bed shaking with fear. What? Was she brutalised as a child? Is this a reversion to some kind of trauma?

Tom tries to comfort her, but in the night hears her get dressed, tiptoe downstairs and leave. And from that moment onwards she blanks him: in the grounds of the park, in the mess hall, in the town. Pathetically, Tom spends all his savings on a ring and tries to present it to her on the busy roadway of the park during a congested shift change while the crowds bump around them. She laughs in his face and tells him to keep it.

He has a complete nervous collapse, is diagnosed unable to work by the Park doctors, and shipped back to Cambridge, where rooms are found in his old college (Kings) for this genius who has worked himself to exhaustion for his country.

Return to Bletchley

And this is where the novel opens, in the quiet of a Cambridge college a few weeks later, with Tom trying to rebuild his mind – his consciousness a barren landscape across which shreds and memories of his work, as well as moments of bliss and moments of despair from the affair, roam like ghosts. For the first fifty pages or so we are partly in his present, in the cold Cambridge rooms, and partly transported to his memories of work, of Bletchley’s rapid expansion, and painful memories of his intimacies with the beautiful blonde Claire.

When out of the blue there is a knock on the door and one of his Bletchley colleagues enters – tall, posh Guy Logue. They want him back. They need him. Is he ready to come? And so the novel really gets going with Tom wrapped in an overcoat, being driven through the winter night from Cambridge back to Bletchley. Here he must painfully say hello again to colleagues who thought he’d gone for good, who know about his humiliating collapse. And all the time he is haunted by her, by Claire. Will he see her again? What will she say? Will her attitude have changed?

The military situation

What he learns is that Shark is proving as intractable as ever. For several good months, the team had been able to crack Shark due to the good luck of having intercepted some open messages which allowed them to work out the encryption code. But only a week or so before his breakdown a new variation of the code had been issued to all its users in a new booklet distributed by U-boat command, since which point Shark has become completely unreadable to our chaps. Hundreds of messages are brought in every day, consisting of clusters of random letters, and the analystst know they contain vital information about the whereabouts and plans of the U-boat wolf packs. But despite the best efforts of the assembled mathematicians and despite the 30 or so big ‘bombes’ or code-calculating devices which have been developed over the previous few years, Shark has reverted to being a frustrating black hole.

Tom is taken along to a high-level meeting chaired by the head of Bletchley, attended by some men from his hut and some new faces, a British Rear-Admiral and several high ranking Americans. They explain that three huge convoys have set sail from New York for England, each carrying over 5,000 troops and civilians as well as some million tonnes of food, raw materials and munitions. It is absolutely vital that Bletchley crack their way back into Shark, as soon as possible. Pointing to the map, the chief indicates they have precisely four days until the convoys enter the zone normally patrolled by the U-boats, four days to crack the code and locate the enemy. Four days. (In all his books Harris likes to emphasise important points with italics.)

Claire’s cottage

Meanwhile, after days of fruitless searching for Claire, Tom finally steels himself to cycle one evening out to the country cottage she shares with another girl, Hester Wallace, who also works at Bletchley, in another hut from the cryptanalysts. Neither of the women are home and so Tom, remembering where the key is kept, lets himself in. He wanders the empty rooms, scenes of his recent shattering passion. He goes up to her room, lies on the bed, reliving it all; then in a fit of rage, sweeps everything off the dressing table and tips out the chest of drawers. It is only then he realises the squeaky floorboard he remembers is no longer squeaky. Rolling back the carpet he sees it has been replaced with a short length of new planking secured by new screws. He undoes them and reaches into the dusty space and…. pulls out some top secret intercept messages. It is absolutely forbidden to remove all materials from the base.

What the hell are they doing in Claire’s room? Is… is Claire a spy?

As he sits pondering and confused, he hears a bicycle coming up the gravelly track, he calls her name and runs down the stairs but whoever it is has turned and is heading off into the night by the time he reaches the front door. One of Claire’s lovers? Or a co-conspirator?

Chasing the intercepts

When Claire fails to appear over the next few days, her absence is reported to the police and a creepy posh policeman named Wigram appears, who is managing the investigation into her disappearance – a drawling, swearing, über-confident public school type.

Hester and Tom have by now become co-investigators both of Claire’s disappearance and Tom has confided in her about the stolen forms. Tom reveals that not only the originals of the messages Claire stole have been removed from the relevant filing cabinet, but in fact the entire record of transmissions from that radio source are missing. Why? Mystery. In fact Tom later quizzes his boss and discovers that not only has this file and its contents been removed but further intercepts of that particular radio station are to be handed over without being decoded. No further decoding from that station. Orders from the highest levels. More mystery…

Undeterred, Hester and Tom realise the only way to get the full context and all the messages from the banned source (and thus shed light on Claire’s disappearance) would be to go and visit the radio intercept base which first recorded them, transcribed them and sent them to Bletchley. (Bletchley doesn’t actually intercept the radio signals: that is done by a web of other locations around the Midlands and beyond, the coded messages being transcribed, and then couriered to Bletchley for decoding. When possible.)

So our intrepid duo borrow a car, evade Wigram and his cops, who are now monitoring all the entrances to the Park, and go on a long night-time drive to Beaumanor to steal the original uncoded intercepts which Claire’s stolen ciphers are based on. There is a long sequence where they have to put up with being shown around the place by the blustery old colonel who runs it, before Hester distracts him and Tom sneaks into the archive/storage room, finds the files for the month and week of the mystery messages, and steals the original records of them – files which contain eleven sequences of words written in code.

They make their escape from the over-hospitable colonel and drive back towards Bletchley, the tension ratcheted up when a car which had been following them, turns on a flashing blue light and siren. Against type, Tom guns the engine and pulls out onto a main road at top speed, only just avoiding being crushed to death by a massive tank transporter. He drops Hester in the lane by her cottage, then drives carefully into Bletchley – sees police waiting outside his boarding house – drives on and stashes the car near the Park.

But for all these precautions, when Hester returns to the cottage she is picked up by Wigram’s police. They drive her to a deserted building near an old workings and lake where she is shown clothes belonging to Claire covered in blood, Hester is sick. The police tell her Claire was obviously bludgeoned with a brick, stripped and thrown into the lake. They are sending for divers.

Tom cracks the code

Meanwhile, Tom arrives back at his hut in Bletchley in time for his shift, puts in the hours trying to decrypt the German messages surrounding the U-boat attacks on the ill-fated convoys, but all the time is nervously impatient to get some time alone in the main house at Bletchley, where they store the actual physical Enigma machines which have been captured or stolen over the years. Here he experiments with various settings trying to crack the intercepts he stole from Beaumanor, and the reader is peering over his shoulder and into his mind, following his complex thought processes – until he has a breakthrough!

Suddenly he can read the eleven messages which have so mysteriously gone missing from the Bletchley file and they appal him. They are messages sent back to its Wehrmacht HQ by a German unit in Poland which has stumbled across a mass grave of Polish officers. Slowly the size of the death pits emerge – there are maybe as many as 10,000 bodies murdered and buried there. This is the so-called Katyn massacre, where the entire officer class of the Polish Army was murdered by Russian forces on Stalin’s orders. Why? To destroy the nation, to permanently deprive it of its leadership class, to reduce it to eternal servitude.

Having deciphered all eleven messages Tom begins to piece together what must have happened here at Bletchley. There is a Polish cryptanalyst in his hut, Jozef Pukowski, nick-named Puck. Claire had begun an affair with Puck. Puck, suspecting something is amiss in his native land, is alerted when a whole batch of messages from a source in Poland is suddenly confiscated and banned, and so asks Claire to get the intercepts via a different route, which her work gives her access to. Between them they read the messages about the Katyn massacres. And Puck’s father’s name is among the dead.

Once they’d read them, Puck would have realised why these particular messages were so sensitive that all the material had been confiscated and further monitoring of this station banned, the order coming from ‘the highest levels’. Why? Because murderous Uncle Joe Stalin is now – since Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941 – ‘our gallant ally’. The last thing Churchill wants is news to leak out about Stalin’s bestial behaviour, news which would demoralise the British public and our armed forces. Hence the complete clampdown on the intercepts.

And, Tom realises, hence Puck’s disgust and despair, at Russian atrocity and British hypocrisy – and his determination to avenge himself on the Russians any way he can. And the simplest way would be to exploit his privileged position at Bletchley and tell the Germans that we, Stalin’s allies, had cracked Enigma. When Claire realised what he was doing, Puck killed her… Or so Tom hypothesises. He likes puzzles, he lives for puzzles. He thinks he’s cracked this one.

Chasing Puck

Now, in a mad rush to confirm whether his fears are true, Tom smuggles himself over the Bletchley perimeter fence (Wigram’s police are closing in) and hurries into Bletchley, to Puck’s digs. His landlady says Puck’s up in his room, but the room is empty and the window is open. In a fever of anxiety, Tom follows his spoor, down to the bottom of the garden, over the wall and along alleyways to the nearby train station. As a train pulls in, Tom sights Puck getting aboard it and just manages to run over the bridge, up to the platform and jump onboard himself.

The novel climaxes with the train being routed into a siding just as Tom burst into Puck’s compartment. The Pole waves a gun around, then leaps off the train and runs off across the fields. Tom, dazed, almost delirious with fatigue, follows him, desperate to find out the truth, but the Pole turns and fires wildly, at which there is a volley of returning fire. Wigram is there along with soldiers. They are closing in on Puck. He turns and shoots and this time is cut down by half a dozen bullets and Tom, too, is hit, falls, loses consciousness.

Epilogue

The creepy police official Wigram comes to visit Tom in hospital and tells him the full story. Claire had an affair with Puck. Puck suspected bad news back home but then the Katyn intercepts confirmed it and decided him to treason. When Tom went to Claire’s empty cottage, it was Puck who cycled up to visit her. Recognising Tom’s voice Puck thinks he might be reuniting with Claire in which case there is a strong risk Claire will tell Tom about Puck and they will both betray him to the authorities. Somehow Puck lures Claire to a meeting at the disused factory, bludgeons her to death and throws her body in the lake.

Years earlier, on his escape route out of occupied Europe, Puck had made various contacts, including with a Portuguese fixer. Now he has reactivated the contact and begun passing messages to him to pass on to the German attaché in Lisbon, claiming the British have cracked Enigma. But the Germans don’t believe it – Europe is swarming with con men and liars – and about something this momentous they need to be certain. They pass the message that they want to interview Puck in person, and so the train he’d been on had been taking him to Liverpool, from where he would catch a boat to Ireland and rendezvous with a U-boat off the Irish coast.

But Wigram had known about him for some time, had let him handle the intercepts, conspire with Claire in order to establish his network. Thus Wigram was aware Puck was going to the train, had had it rerouted, had had his soldiers ready at the siding to take Puck prisoner but he leapt from the train before it stopped and Tom saw the rest. Wigram wanted Puck captured alive but when he started to shoot, his men shot back.

The real story

Tom lies in bed, recovering from his wounds, and decides Wigram is lying. It’s too neat and it doesn’t quite fit the facts.

After weeks of recuperation Wigram takes Tom to Bletchley station and loads him onto a train back to Cambridge. For him the war is over. Except that he gets off at the next stop and catches a train to London. Tom goes to the Registry of births and deaths at Somerset House to confirm his hunch, and then goes to see Claire’s posh father. He has discovered that Claire Romilly died aged six. Her sad, wasted father invites Tom into his big, echoey, empty, dust-sheet-shrouded house and tells him the truth.

Wigram is in British Intelligence. He wanted to plant a spy in Bletchley. Through the public school old boy network he knew of Romilly, his posh background, his dead daughter. He approached Romilly and asked if he could use his daughter’s identity as a cover. Thus, with a false name and identity, the woman known as Claire entered Bletchley and set about taking numerous lovers, in order to spy on them. Puck was the last of them – from Wigram’s point of view, she struck gold, finding a genuine spy – and she went along with Puck’s intercept stealing so that Wigram could find out what Puck was doing with the information.

It’s true that it was Puck who cycled up to Claire’s cottage that fateful night, and recognised Tom’s voice, and feared he might discover the intercepts and betray them – but with the big difference that he and Claire faked Claire’s death, pretending Puck was a murderer a) in order for Claire (who he genuinely loved) to escape b) because he was going to be out of the country in less than 24 hours anyway. Puck went to his death never realising Claire was spying on him.

So the woman who so bedazzled Tom – whatever he real name is – is still alive. Still alive but he will never be able to find her. A sadder and a wiser man Tom makes his way back to Cambridge, knowing that she is alive, knowing he will never see her again.

Conclusions

Confusing? A little. Believable? Just about. Through all the contortions of the plot comes the powerful rabbit punch of the historically true Katyn Massacre. Another huge historical atrocity which boggles the mind.

And also, despite the twists and turns of the thriller narrative, the book evinces a powerful sense of the challenges and complexity and frustrations of living with Enigma, eating, breathing, drinking Enigma, of the highs and lows of the code-breaking community at Bletchley. In his afterword Harris thanks the many Bletchley veterans he spoke to, and the book is so vivid that, as one critic says on the cover, it’s as if you’re there, living that life.

A big part of which is the sights and sounds and smells of drab wartime Britain with its appalling food, the frustrations of the blackout and rationing, the crampedness of wartime life. All of which help to foster the claustrophobic sense of constriction which makes the novel so powerful, so gripping.

Enigma compared with Fatherland

Both are about the Second World War – though admittedly Fatherland is set 20 years later, and in a parallel universe where the Nazis won the war. Still – the war, its outcome and consequences, and horror of its atrocities, dominate both books.

Both are about one man, a maverick and loner who defies the authorities, who sets out to discover a dark secret at the heart of the ‘system’ – Xavier March the conscientious Nazi policeman in Fatherland; Tom Jericho, the gifted mathematician and cryptanalyst in Enigma.

In both books the hero joins forces with an unexpectedly tough female helper – Charlie Maguire, the clever and resourceful journalist in Fatherland; Hester Wallace, the dowdy feminist clerical assistant, angry at being prevented from reaching her full potential by patronising sexist men, in Enigma.

Both books feature a long, dangerous car journey – March’s final, doomed drive hundreds of miles East to Auschwitz in Fatherland; Tom and Hester’s night-time drive to Beaumanor, one of the satellite stations where German signals are intercepted, and then the perilous drive back climaxing in a car chase, in Enigma.

Both novels rotate around acts of bestial, mass atrocity – the Holocaust in Fatherland and the Katyn murder of Poland’s officer class in Enigma. Both books send shivers up your spine at the sheer horror of the Second World War and at the disgusting behaviour of human beings during the terrible twentieth century, the Century of Catastrophes.

And both books impose a tight time-frame on the protagonists to create a sense of nailbiting urgency, in fact the identical time-frame – of four days: four days until the Führertag for Xavier March to get to the bottom of the mystery murders and save his career, possibly his life, in Fatherland; four days for Tom and his colleagues to break back into the Shark code, before the German U-boats start attacking the convoys and killing men and women.

Style

Both stories are told by a third person narrator who leans over and merges at various points with the thoughts, ideas and feelings of their protagonist. However, I think Harris has made a deliberate attempt to deploy different styles in each book. The non-British setting of Fatherland allowed Harris to use a fast-moving hard-boiled prose which, of course, owed a lot to the American thriller tradition.

Enigma, by contrast, opens in the hallowed setting of a Cambridge college quad and mingles with the posh public school chaps at Bletchley Park, in the Admiralty and Army and so on. Therefore its prose is noticeably more English and traditional. I think it must be deliberate that not only the characters but the narrator, revert from the hard-boiled tough guy prose of Fatherland, to a self-consciously correct English prose which insists on a rather out-of-date politeness and grammatical correctness.

The horror of war

It is always in the background, blotted out for long stretches by the breathless pace of the central narrative, but Harris is careful to remind us of the reality of the war, and that the whole point of Enigma is that it gives instructions to German forces dedicated to killing us and, in this specific instance, orders to the U-boat packs which are converging on the merchant convoys in the Atlantic.

On a handful of vivid and upsetting occasions Harris has characters remind us what this actually means:

  • the convoy of vulnerable ships, carrying sailors, troops, as well as Red Cross women, protected by a handful of decrepit warships
  • commanded – in an extra bitter twist – by a captain whose first big command it is
  • tossed and bobbed on the stormy and freezing cold Atlantic waves
  • watching the ship next to them suddenly explode, men and women jumping into the sea to freeze to death or managing to evacuate into lifeboats, which will be ignored and not rescued as the rest of the convoy steams at full speed in a desperate bid to escape their hunters
  • men and women blown up, burned to death, frozen to death or drowned

In one of the several cruel ironies in the book, Harris has Tom patiently explain to his hut full of oddballs and geniuses, that they need as many messages as possible from the attacking U-boats in order to stand a chance of noticing patterns which can then be run through the bombes to see if they work, to crack the code. But getting that sufficient number of messages means they need the U-boats to make contact with the convoy and attack. It is a wicked irony, which several of the characters debate bitterly: in order to get enough intercepts to decode, the cryptanalysts need the U-boats to sight and sink Allied ships. Each ship blown up and sunk triggers another message back to base from the attacking U-boat; the more of our ships sunk, the more human beings blown up, burned to death or drowned – the better for the analysts in Hut 3 at Bletchley. Some of them are made physically sick by the horror of the situation they find themselves in.


Credit

Enigma by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 1995. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Arrow Books paperback edition.

The movie

Enigma was made into a movie released in 2001. It was directed by Michael Apted from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard and with a soundtrack by John Barry. This is a promising team but somehow the movie never really gels, partly because it looks like it was made on a shoestring, the picture having a cheap video feel and the action scenes very stagey and underwhelming.

It stars six-foot-tall, dour Scotsman, Dougray Scott, pretending to be the short, nerdy intellectual Tom Jericho, and bosomy Kate Winslet pretending to be the thin, dowdy Hester Wallace, neither all that convincing.

Among other striking changes to the plot of the novel, the main one is that Tom and Hester fall in love during their goosechase, and the movie ends with them after the war, happily married with a baby on the way. This is a grotesque sell-out of the much more believable, edgy and arm’s length relationship they have in the novel, but I guess it’s the law that an action movie must have a heterosexual love affair at its core.

Similarly, an action movie must have a fight scene and things going bang, no matter how pointless and badly done. Thus the novel ends with Puck shot running across a field, leaving the recuperating Tom to listen to Wigram’s account of events and then slowly piece together his own alternative, much cleverer, solution. This is intelligent. It taxes the mind to follow Tom’s thought processes and juxtaposing the two interpretations of the same set of events is intellectually and aesthetically satisfying.

In the ludicrous climax to the movie, on the other hand, Puck escapes across the field, vanishing from the police’s clutches. Back at the hut the next morning, when Tom hears that a lone U-boat has been reported heading towards the coast of Scotland, he remembers seeing a postcard of an isolated loch in Scotland in Claire’s bedroom. Bingo! It must be where they’re planning their escape from. Tom runs out to his car and drives from Bletchley to the Scottish Highlands, arriving at the very minute when Puck is getting into a little motorboat to putter out to the U-boat. Only running full pelt down the hillside does Tom make it to the end of the pier just as the boat pulls clear and only by dint of a super-human leap does he land in the back of the boat where he rolls straight into a very stagey fight with Puck.

Puck has the gun. No, Tom knocks it out of his hands and it goes skidding across the deck of the boat. Now both men throw themselves towards it and try to hold each other back. Tom makes a big reach but his fingers are just inches from the barrel. Then Puck throws Tom off to one side and himself almost makes it to the gun when – wow! – Tom grabs him and pulls it back. One of them finally grabs the gun and they roll around in the back of the boat both hands trying to point it towards the other. Goodness, the tension and excitement! I’ve only seen this exact scene about a thousand times before. Do you think the bad guy will win? Do you, children? Because this has become a film for seven year-olds, about as challenging as the Famous Five. Tom finally gets full hold of the gun and stands as if to threaten Puck who, in that split second, takes a swing at him with a boathook which knocks Tom into the sea.

Which is lucky really, because as a cheap model U-boat surfaces near the boat, Wigram (who has been lazily watching the whole thing through binoculars from a nearby hillside) calls in a British plane which dives low and blows up the U-boat and Puck. BOOM! Another boom even bigger than the first boom! Wow. They must have been on a really tight budget to be forced to use such cheap and cheesy special effects. So no more Jerry and no more nasty traitor. Cut to Dougray Scott flailing around in the water, looking appalled at being trapped in such a third-rate, low-budget thriller. And then cut to him and Kate Winslet spooning over her pregnant bulge in a happy, happy post-War London.

Is it a law that TV and film adaptations of books must make them duller, less imaginative, more clichéd, more sexist, more violent and more insultingly stupid?


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992)

‘What do you do,’ he said, ‘if you devote your life to discovering criminals, and it gradually occurs to you that the real criminals are the people you work for? What do you do when everyone tells you not to worry, you can’t do anything about it, it was a long time ago?’ (p.213)

Robert Harris

Harris went to Cambridge where he read English, was president of the Union and editor of the student newspaper Varsity. He joined the BBC, where he worked on its flagship current affairs programmes, Panorama and Newsnight. In 1987 he became political editor of the Observer newspaper. In the 1980s he wrote five factual journalistic books – about chemical and biological warfare, the Falklands War, Neil Kinnock, the Hitler Diaries scandal and a study of Mrs Thatcher’s press secretary. It is an exemplary career of its type.

Fatherland

In 1992 Harris took the publishing world by storm when he published his first novel, Fatherland, set in an alternative world where Germany has won the Second World War. The two big ‘divergence points’ in this version of history – i.e. where this version turned away from actual history – were that:

  1. German armies cut off the Russians from their oil sources in the Caucasus and so were able to force them back to the line of the Urals, conquering Russian territory far beyond Moscow. In the novel this has given rise to a whole settler movement to encourage good Aryans to go and live in the vast new Eastern Empire, although fighting continues out on the remote border. Everyone knows the Americans are supplying money and weapons to the rump of the Russian army to allow them to fight on, and there are also dark rumours of ‘terrorist’ attacks on German settlers.
  2. The Nazis realised in 1942 that the British had cracked their Enigma code and so issued an entirely new code machine to all their U-boats, which were then able to sink Allied convoys at will. Britain was eventually starved into submission, ‘Churchill and his gang’ forced to flee to Canada, and peace made with the Nazi-friendly King Edward VIII. With no ally left in Europe, America has no alternative but to make a grudging peace with Germany and turn its efforts to defeating Japan in the Pacific (which it does).

As a result of German victory:

Luxembourg had become Moselland, Alsace-Lorraine was Westmark; Austria was Ostmark. As for Czechoslovakia – that bastard child of Versailles had dwindled to the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia – vanished from the map. In the East, the German Empire was carved four ways into the Reichskommisariats Ostland, Ukraine, Caucasus, Muscovy. (p.201)

and Portugal, Spain, France, Ireland, Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland have all been corralled by Germany into a European trading bloc under German control.

Xavier March

But all of this is old history to Xavier ‘Zavi’ March, ‘solitary, watchful’ (p.26), the world-weary Berlin cop – to be precise, a Sturmbannführer in the Kripo or Kriminalpolizei – who is the protagonist of this brilliantly gripping and disturbing thriller.

Like all fictional cops, March’s private life is a mess (his wife, Klara, has divorced him, taking his ten-year-old son, Pili, who has been taught to hate him as ‘insufficiently patriotic’) so now March inhabits a pokey flat in a squalid apartment block and lives only for his job. He doesn’t have a drink problem, which is a relief – but he does chain-smoke and he does worry about things.

The novel is set in 1964, over the five days between 14 April and the Führertag – 20 April – the day Germans (in this parallel universe) celebrate the birthday of Adolf Hitler. Not only that, but the newspapers are full of the impending visit of the US President Kennedy (in one of the many jokes that alternative histories allow, Harris makes this President Kennedy, the father of the one we know and love – the alleged crook and political fixer, Joseph Kennedy). Thus, like so many thrillers, Fatherland uses the build-up to big background events to crank up the tension in the main plot.

Like all good detective novels, it starts with a body, a man’s body is found in a lake in Berlin. After a lot of procedural work – visits to the gruesome autopsy, trips to the archives, calls to colleagues in other departments – March establishes that the dead man was a certain Buhler, a party official high up in the administration of occupied Poland early in the war. March discovers that Buhler had recently been in touch with two colleagues, Stuckart and Luther – but when March tries to track down these men he finds one is dead and the other missing.

Moreover, the investigation is only really getting going when March discovers it has been handed over to the Gestapo, who outrank his Kripo organisation and March is told to stand down. However, like every fictional investigator in every thriller ever, March is a conscientious maverick and so disregards orders to abandon the investigation. He goes poking around Buhler’s lakeside house, finding odd clues – for example Buhler had lost a foot in the war, blown off in a mine, and he discovers the plastic prosthetic foot in mud by the lake shore… Why would a man strip off for a swim in a freezing lake on a rainy Berlin day?

He then tracks down the feisty American woman journalist who reported Stuckart’s death to the authorities, one Charlie Maguire. She tells him Stuckart phoned to make an appointment to see her, but when she arrived at his apartment it was to find his blood-soaked corpse next to a gun and a suicide note.

Against his better judgement March finds himself confiding in Charlie, to the extent of persuading her to go back to the apartment with him and his trusty partner, Jaeger, to see if there are any clues. Here March’s superior police skills are demonstrated when he finds a hidden safe the ordinary cops had missed; they are just examining the contents when several cars screech up outside; it is the fearful Gestapo. Bundling Charlie out a back way, March and Jaeger remain to take the heat and they are arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into the cells. Anything could happen, including the torture they all know exists, but which is rarely discussed.

Instead, after stewing the whole night, the following morning they are driven back out to Buhler’s mansion by the lake where the two cops realise there is a power struggle going on over the investigation. On the one hand is Obergruppenführer Odilo Globocnik, universally known as Globus – the bull-necked sadist General in the Gestapo. March knows from a witness that Globus was seen at the lake where Buhler’s body was later found. He suspects he also had some part in Stuckart’s murder. Is Globus killing these men and making it look like suicide? But why? Facing him is wiry little Artur Nebe, the thin, shrewd head of the Kripo (or the Oberstgruppenführer, Reich Kriminalpolizei). Nebe listens to Globus rant about March disobeying orders to desist investigating, but out-ranks him and decides to give March the benefit of the doubt.

Globus marches March, Jaeger and Nebe down into Buhler’s cellar, where his men have broken through a panel to reveal a secret room absolutely stuffed with priceless European works of art. Triumphant, Globus asserts that Buhler, Stuckart and Luther were in cahoots to smuggle art works from the East, where Buhler worked, then out of the country to make themselves rich. When they realised their scam was discovered they killed themselves in shame. That’s it.

Outside Nebe takes March aside and puts him in the picture, telling him that Globus has reported him – March – to the terrifying Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo, and requested that March be immediately reposted from Berlin to some crappy provincial police force. What? Why? Because this affair is about much more than stolen art: March is blundering into something much bigger than he realises. Globus knows that March knows that Globus is somehow implicated, and therefore tried to persuade Heydrich to dispose of him. But Nebe convinced Heydrich to give March four days’ grace. Solve the case, Nebe tells March: report back to me everything you discover, and I may just be able to save your career.

Thus Harris deftly turns up the pressure on our man, who now has the threat of his career being ended and a swift exile to somewhere ghastly out in the occupied East, all set against the tension throughout Berlin rising with the approach of the Führertagand the impending visit of the US President, fraught with its own geopolitical ramifications. (It is testimony to Harris’s complete grasp of this parallel reality, that the implications of Kennedy’s visit are worked out so thoroughly; as a colleague tells him, it must indicate the war in the East is going really badly if Germany is prepared to cosy up to its long-term antagonist in the so-called ‘Cold War’, the United States, in what contemporaries are referring to as a new spirit of ‘détente’ – all this being, of course, a wry rethinking of the actual Cold War we know in our reality, the one between the US and the victorious USSR, and the well-known détente of the 1970s between them.)

Harris’s style

This book is written with great panache and style. It feels as if Harris has learned from all previous thriller writers, plus his own journalistic success, to deploy a prose style which is really taut and compressed. No matter how many times I had to put it down to go to work or cook dinner or other distractions, I was able to pick it up and within a few pages be back in its world, thoroughly gripped.

The comedy of alternative history

Alternative history is a recognised academic field now. I first heard of it via Niall Ferguson’s 1997 book, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. ‘Normal history’ is already full of irony, unintended consequences, comedy and farce. But alternative histories give the author the opportunity for commentary on the ‘real world’ at any number of levels, from the profoundly challenging, scholarly and intellectual, to the witty and waspish. Thus, in Harris’s universe, where Germany won the Second World War:

  • Cecil Beaton did some charming photo portraits of the Führer
  • four young lads from Liverpool are doing concerts in Hamburg which the authorities disapprove of (p.198)
  • The American president is a Kennedy, but not the stylish young dude we knew, rather his piratical anti-semitic father, Joseph
  • there is an SS Academy in Oxford (p.183)
  • there was a Treaty of Rome (as in the real world) but this one tied unoccupied Europe into a trading zone dominated by Germany

These comments are often very witty, but their overall effect is quite a profound one – for they raise the question of how much the deep currents of history can be altered or derailed? Would Germany have dominated the continent of Europe, have created a European Union, would German industry, German cars and TVs still have dominated our shops, would German tourists have hogged the best loungers and German football teams kept on winning the Euro and World cups, regardless of who won the war? Would the Beatles and 1960s protest have happened regardless of the outcome?

Are there patterns of social and economic and technological change which have their own ineluctable logic, which are unavoidable no matter what the outcome of wars, the decisions of politicians, the coming and going of revolutions and restorations? Is there a kind of fatality about the overall direction of human history, unaffected by even the largest social or political events?

The Holocaust

As the novel progresses March and Charlie become an item, falling in love and sleeping together, as they try to figure out what’s going on, each with their own perspective – March the conscientious cop, Charlie the American journalist looking for a scoop, both realising there’s something fishy about Globus’s art smuggling story.

As part of their deal, Nebe allows March out of the country for 24 hours, to fly to Zurich because he has established that Luther, the only one of the trio unaccounted for, flew to Zurich a few weeks earlier. And in Stuckart’s apartment, in the hidden safe, he discovered the number and key of a Swiss safety deposit box. Putting 2 and 2 together, he speculates that Luther flew out on behalf of all three to get something – what?

But when he and Charlie open the box in the Swiss bank they find nothing in it but an admittedly invaluable painting by Leonardo da Vinci. So is it all about art? Nothing but a big art smuggling scam? But in passport control back at Berlin, it dawns on March that Luther might have deliberately left something to be found as ‘lost luggage’, planning to reclaim it later, not knowing he would have to go on the run. Acting on this hunch he pulls in a favour from an old buddy in the airport staff and wangles hold of a stylish briefcase left behind after the flight which he and Charlie know Luther took back from Zurich, and with Luther’s initials. Must be his.

What they find inside comes a bombshell to them and the reader. Iit is a big collection of documents which the novel reprints verbatim over the next thirty pages or so. Most of them (as the afterword explains) are actual Nazi documents from the war detailing the construction of the Holocaust death camps, documents recording the high-level policy decisions to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ once and for all, a decision which led to mountains of bureaucratic paperwork organising the supply of bricks and mortar, new railway schedules of trains bringing Jews from the West to occupied Poland, to build the gas chambers and to supply the Zyklon B nerve gas, in an organised, psychopathic, industrialised attempt to murder all 11 million of Europe’s Jews.

For the next forty or fifty pages Charlie and March read through the documents and try to come to terms with what they’ve discovered. In their version of history, none of this is known. Germans sort of suspect it and sort of make jokes about it, but it is nowhere written down or recorded, the Jewish inhabitants of March’s flat before him – the Weiss family – have been obliterated from the record and so have all the other Jews of Europe.

This is a truly terrifying vision in a number of ways.

1. In this version of history the Germans succeed in wiping out the Jews. Completely. Not leaving 2 or 3 or 4 million to survive and go on to build their own independent state. None. None survive. Complete annihilation. While Charlie and March are getting used to the scale of this monstrous deceit and historical genocide, the reader is grappling with the notion that an entire race or nation can be wiped out and – it have no results. Europe carries on. People moan about the weather and their work and their wives and no-good children. The Jews are gone as if they had never been.

2. On another level, the reader is also rereading some of the actual key documents from the creation of the Holocaust, an experience which makes you feel traumatised, disgusted and shattered with despair all over again.

One of the documents is a five-page description of the visit Luther himself made to Auschwitz in his official position as a senior Nazi in Poland. He records the detraining of 60 wagons full of Jewish men, women and children who have been packed into the cattle trucks for four days and nights, during which many have died. He records the separation off of the fit men who will be worked to death, and the immediate hussling of the remaining sick, women, children and elderly direct to the gas chamber where they are told to strip off for delousing, and then coralled into the chamber and the door locked. Then the scientists arrive with the canisters which they empty into the chutes which go down into the floor of the chamber. Here the mauve crystals of Zyklon B are oxidised to become the fatal nerve gas which then pours unstoppably up through the grilles in the floor, creating an indescribable frenzy as the people inside scrabble over each other in futile attempts to escape.

These five pages alone overwhelm much of the rest of the book. It is difficult to continue reading and impossible to read the rest of the book in the previous frame of mind.

The documents indicate that there was a ring of some 14 Nazi officials who all worked in the same part of the Death camp division. March makes enquiries and discovers that one by one they’ve been dying off, killed in road accidents, mysterious explosions, ‘suicides’. Someone is killing off these final witnesses to the atrocity. It must have been this which prompted Stuckart, Buhler and Luther to panic and go for the documents in Zurich which they hoped to use as some kind of passport to escape.

While March had been away investigating Charlie received a phone call from the missing Luther. He wants to meet next day at the central station. He wants Charlie’s help to be smuggled out of Germany and to America, along with the documents. Next day March parks nervously across from the station steps and watches Charlie and her friend from the US Embassy wait tensely. Finally a furtive figure emerges from the crowds and moves towards them, is only meters away when… His head explodes, vaporises, demolished by the high velocity bullet of a professional assassin. Spattered with blood, in shock, Charlie is hussled into March’s car which takes off with a squeal of breaks.

Now they realise their phone calls and apartments are bugged. March takes Charlie to a hotel whose owner owes him a favour and they hide out in a small attic room. Here March supervises Charlie’s bid to flee Germany. They dye her hair to look like a young woman who was killed in an unrelated car accident earlier in the week and whose passport March has swiped from his offices for just this purpose. He packs her off in a hired car, telling her to drive south and cross the border into Switzerland. He promises to meet her there, but they both know he won’t. By now the atmosphere of doom lies too heavy over the story.

Instead March drives out to the crappy suburb where his ex-wife lives to see his son for one last time, to try and make amends for being such a bad dad. But, in a bitter twist of the knife, it turns out that Globus and his thugs have suborned his son to act nice and keep his Daddy busy until they can surround the house. They burst in, arrest March and take him to Gestapo headquarters, where Globus plays very bad cop, alternating with a more ‘civilised’ Gestapo interviewer, Krebs, who gives the bloodied March cigarettes, and tries to wheedle the truth out of him. Both want to know a) what was in the case and b) where’s the girl?

The torture scenes go on over many pages describing days and nights of pain and delirium, climaxing in the scene where several thugs man-handle March’s right forearm onto the table and Globus, with all his strength, swings a baseball bat down on to March’s hand, reducing it to a mangled pulp of bloody flesh.

Finally, the authorities try a con trick: Krebs, the more sympathetic of the interrogators, arrives with a sympathetic doctor, gives him painkillers and clean clothes, then takes him by car, ostensibly to another dungeon. But then he stops the car on a pretext and takes March down into some old war ruins. Here the sly Nebe steps out of the shadows, in a scene straight out of a hundred movies. Nebe says that he and Krebs have both been scandalised and disgusted by what March has told them about the Holocaust. They have always hated the Gestapo and their brutal methods, and so they want March to successfully smuggle the documents out of Germany, to be published in American, so the rest of the world can see what criminals are running the regime. They push him towards a car in which is waiting his fat partner, Jaeger. ‘Where shall I take you?’ Jaeger asks.

But even through the blood and pain and drugs of his torture wounds, March realises it is a trap. They are hoping he will take them to the girl and to the remaining documents. So he draws a gun on Jaeger and with his last energy orders him, not to drive south to where he hopes Charlie is crossing the Swiss border, but East, across the border into what was once Poland, driving for hours and hundreds of kilometers until he forces Jaeger to drive off the Autobahn onto the local road and then onto local farm tracks which lead out to the empty acres of derelict industrial land where once stood the appalling death camp Auschwitz, which he has read so much about.

During his torture by Globus, the fat sadist had gloated that, yes, he, Globus, took part in the extermination of the Jews and yes, he is proud of it, but that the world will never know. All the evidence has been destroyed. All the Jews are gone, all the buildings were destroyed long ago, and all the paperwork was burned like the bodies. Almost the only evidence left in the world is the documents Buhler and Stuckart and Luther had squirreled away in their Swiss bank as insurance in case their art smuggling was discovered. And now, Globus gloats in March’s blood-sodden face, all three are dead, and soon they will have the girl and the briefcase and all March’s clever investigation will have been for nothing.

So March has come to the bare barren land which was Auschwitz for two reasons: to decoy the Gestapo he knows must be following him, as far away as possible from his lover and her desperate mission to inform the world; and to see for himself whether it’s true: whether there really is no record, no sign, no testimony at all to the greatest horror in human history.

Thus he is still stumbling across the grass and mud looking for evidence, for bricks or doors or metal frames, for anything – when he hears the cars arrive, and the helicopter which had been following them from Berlin coming up overhead, carrying the Gestapo with their machine guns. ‘Drop your weapon,’ they shout through loudspeakers, so March turns and cocks his Luger, determined not to be taken alive.

And that’s the end. March is obviously going to die, but what about Charlie? Will she escape to Switzerland? Will she get anyone to publish the documents? Will anyone believe her? And will the US government – which has invested so much in President Kennedy’s visit to the old enemy, Nazi Germany, and its new policy of détente – allow this major geopolitical initiative to be derailed by a hysterical woman with her grotesque and improbable claims?

The novel leaves you reeling not only with the horror of the secret at its heart, but also at the seeming hopelessness of exposing the truth in a world where everyone has a vested interest in keeping it hidden.

Credit

Fatherland by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 1992. All quotes and references are to the 1993 Arrow Books paperback edition.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

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