Top critical review
330 people found this helpful
on 30 October 2012
I am a great admirer of Sansom's Shardlake novels. He has a thorough understanding of Tudor England and his stories set in that era are wonderful to read. This novel is a considerable change for him.
The story, what he calls an "alternate history", is set in 1952 (the year of his birth and - as it happens - mine). Britain had negotiated a peace treaty with Hitler in 1940. The war in the west ended then, though it lumbered on in the east. By 1952 Russia and Germany are still at war. But Britain is run by a pro-treaty government which has outlawed the opposition. Germany is Britain's closest ally. The government has become more and more authoritarian. At the time the story is set, all British Jews are being rounded up with the aim of sending them to eastern Europe to be gassed. Churchill, the leader of the resistance, is a wanted man, running from large country house to large country house to escape the Special Branch. The British police willingly give their assistance to the SS. British subjects are routinely taken to the basement of the German embassy to be tortured.
Against that background we meet the story's main characters. Frank Muncaster is a slightly unhinged geologist whose brother, a scientist working in America on secret weapons, blurts out something to Frank about the work he is doing in America. Frank is horrified. He pushes his brother through a window and, as a result, is dragged off to a lunatic asylum. David Fitzgerald is Frank's only real friend from university days. He is a civil servant. He has worked for the resistance for a couple of years, copying secret documents. When his relationship with Frank is discovered the resistance enlists his help in getting Frank out of the asylum before the Germans get hold of him. The adventure is on its way. I will not ruin the story by saying what then happens.
The story itself is gripping enough (although it is not easy to accept the theory that Frank's brother was really able to say anything of such gigantic use to the Germans in the few minutes which preceded the assault). But we can happily overlook that weakness as we tensely turn the many hundreds of pages to find out what happens next. I regret the lack of humour in the book, but that now seems to be the mark of the modern thriller and I certainly don't want to give the impression that this is not a gripping read.
What I did, I confess, find rather disagreeable was Sansom's decision to portray certain real politicians as being positively evil. I can see that he doesn't like newspaper magnates and I suppose I can just about forgive him for casting Beaverbrook as his pro-treaty Prime Minister (though it hardly rings true to anyone who knows about Beaverbrook's work as a minister throughout the war - particularly his conviction that the allies had to do all they could to assist Russia). But choosing to make Enoch Powell a pro-treaty cabinet minister can't really be forgiven. Sansom reveals, in a biographical note at the end of the book, that he is on the left in politics. but that does not excuse ignorance. I wonder what Tony Benn, a great friend of Powell's, would make of Sansom's decision to portray Powell as an ally of Nazis.
Powell was Professor of Greek at Sydney University when war was declared. He immediately resigned and returned to England to enlist in the army as a private. He finished the war as a brigadier (one of the youngest ever and one of only two people to rise from private to brigadier during the war). In the 1945 election, despite being a natural Tory, he voted Labour. He did so because he still could not forgive the Conservatives for Munich. Famously, when asked what he most regretted in his life, he said that he wished he had been killed in the war. How on earth Sansom could imagine such a man as a Nazi sympathiser is quite beyond me. True, and this seems to be Sansom's point, Powell was an enormous admirer of the Indian Empire. It was the threat to that empire which brought him into politics after the war, though by the time he had become an MP in 1950 that battle had been lost and he became convinced that there was no longer any place for British imperialism. No, making Powell a Nazi villain, presumably just because he is dead and can't sue, was a major fault in this novel. And there are other dead politicians treated in the same way (both Labour and Conservative - not to mention the entire Scottish Nationalist Party). I won't make this lengthy review even longer by going through them all as well. All I will say is this part of the novel is both weak and disagreeable.
I don't want to put people off reading this rather good and well-written yarn, but a health warning is needed for anyone who has any knowledge of the 1939 to 1953 period of British history.