Harris, Robert. Fatherland.

NY: Random House, 1992.

I’ve been a science fiction junkie since I first learned to read by myself, circa 1950. And with my later heavy involvement in history, it’s not surprising I developed a particular fondness for both time travel and alternate history stories. (Sometimes, as with Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, there’s a considerable overlap between the two.) And while Harris has become a pretty popular author over the past two decades, this book was not only his first, it’s still arguably his best.

Every alternate history plot has a “point of departure” — the day in our history (the “real” history) when something happened one way instead of the other way, with repercussions forever after. So, suppose the Germans had discovered in 1942 that their secret codes had been compromised, that the British were using a captured code machine (“Ultra”) to read all their mail? So they change to a new code system (Britain’s greatest fear, actually), the U-boats greatly increase their toll on shipping, Britain is starved into submission, and Churchill and the king flee to Canada. And in the U.S., Roosevelt doesn’t get re-elected. Now it’s 1964 and the guerilla war on the Eastern Front is still dragging on. The Fuhrer is about to celebrate his 75th birthday and President Kennedy (no, the other one) is coming for a very important political visit.

But that’s just the set-up, the background, and Harris has a fascinating and suspenseful story all his own to tell. Xavier March is a homicide detective in the Berlin that Albrecht Speer built after the war. He’s an SS major because it’s required that he be, but he’s notably lacking in enthusiasm for political matters and hasn’t bothered to join the Party, so it’s unlikely he’ll see another promotion. But on a rainy April morning, he goes to investigate the body of a old man that has washed up on the shore of a lake in the socially exclusive part of the city, probably either an accidental death or a suicide. But the corpse turns out to be a once-very-senior Party official and various points of the case make March begin to think “murder” instead. And then word comes down to leave this one alone, to walk away and let the rival Gestapo handle things. But abandoning a case is not March’s way, and that’s going to get him in trouble, and involvement in additional murders. In fact, it’s eventually going to involve him with a terrier-like American journalist and lead him to discovery of the secret the German leadership absolutely does not want the world to know about: What actually happened to twelve million European Jews?

March is in every way a completely believable character, as is Charlie, the American girl he can’t quite fathom, so steeped is he in the Nazi way of doing things. The series of victims are all real people — real in our world — though their lives are different, of course, than in our timeline. And the atmosphere of what the world might have been like following a German victory is very, very scary. If you know anything about the history of the 20th century, this book is going to suck you in and keep you up late till you finish it.

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