Monday, 29 August 2011


If you’re reading this blog there’s a high chance you’re interested in alternative history. If you’re interested in alternative history then there’s an even higher chance you’re read Robert Harris’s Fatherland. In my opinion it’s the apogee of the genre and a damn fine thriller to boot.

(As a quick aside, I should say a word about alternative history. The ‘definitive’ novel of the genre is The Man in the High Castle and it’s noteworthy that this is a work of science fiction. Purists would argue that Fatherland isn’t really alternative history, only its milieu is. I tend to agree – which is why I see Afrika Reich as foremost a thriller, not alternative history.)

One of the reasons Fatherland is such a satisfying read is because of the main character: XAVIER MARCH, an investigator with Berlin’s criminal police (and a God send for author’s writing A-Zs and wondering what they’ll do with those tricky last letters of the alphabet). It was a lesson for me. If Afrika Reich was going to succeed beyond the setting and plot, the characters would have to be people readers cared for.

That said, there’s no Xavier March equivalent in my book. March is a more morally straightforward character than Burton. Although a member of the SS, he’s motivated by a desire to know the truth about the world he lives in, and uncovering corruption and murder at the heart of the Reich. In many ways he’s a crusader. Burton’s motives are entirely personal; he’s indifferent to the Nazis’ plans for Africa apart from when they intersect his individual needs. As I once said to my editor: ‘the bad guys are bad, but the good guys aren’t necessarily good’. I’ll come back to this subject in ‘E is for...’.

Returning to Fatherland, in essence it’s a crime thriller, you could even go so far as to say a whodunit. Harris’s book followed in the tradition of Len Deighton’s SS-GB which is an espionage thriller. It occurred to me that the victorious Third Reich element of these books (although intrinsic to the plot) is a backdrop to variations on thriller. Since the crime and spy sub-genre had already been done, I wanted to do something fresh with Afrika Reich – hence the reason I chose to make it an action/adventure thriller, more of which next time...

PS – just in case you’re wondering why I’ve included a picture of Rutger Hauer here dressed in black, he played Xavier March in the HBO adaptation of the novel.


  1. Hi Guy, I definitely cared more about Burton because his motivations were personal rather than political. There've been several items in the media in recent days about how Nazi and neo-Nazi policies are best made irrelevant via humour rather than given the respect of debate. Even in a alternative history I was happier to see Burton take the Indiana Jones approach of 'I wish these lunatics would stop getting in the way of my quest' (I paraphrase). Similar for the least heroic member of Dr Who's gang locking Hitler in a cupboard in the recent episode.

    However, I do like this stork who's wandering around Germany promoting his biography 'Mien Krampf'
    If we really have to challenge fascism again, who better to do it than a cartoon bird? Leave Burton to his own adventures - can't wait to see what he does next...
    K x

  2. Yay for doing something fresh with Afrika Reich. Much as I adore Burton, I am so enamoured with the most amazing Neliah! Now she had politics and personal imbedded in her bones and I do hope to read more of her in your next book!

    p.s. a pic of Rutger Hauer looking moody is always welcome!

    Take care

  3. K - interesting that you cared more for Burton because his motives were personal. I hadn't thought of interpreting it that way before (I always saw their personal nature as nudging him more in the direction of amorality). Always fascinating to get other views.

    'Mein Krampf' made me laugh!


  4. Kitty - Alas, Neliah isn't in Book 2... but she does reappear for Book 3. In the meantime I think you'll like 'N is for...' ;o)


  5. Would you say yours is also a 'techno-thriller' because unlike Fatherland and ss-gb it features the technology the nazis were developing like the gunships and jet fighters etc?

  6. Anon - had x2 anonymous comments within 10 mins so assume you're the same poster as on 'D is for...'. Happy to take anonymous comments, but there's also a function to leave your name even if you don't want to sign into Blogger. Always prefer replying to a name!

    I've never really thought about the techno-thriller angle. I normally associate that sub-genre with something contemporary. However, as you rightly identify I did want to introduce some of the hardware the Nazis were developing, something Harris and Deighton mostly overlook.

  7. Wondered if you'd seen the HBO movie? If you haven't, don't bother, it's DIRE! Rutger is okay and Miranada Richardson makes a decent Charlie but it deviates from the novel for now good reason and has a totally stupid ending! When will we see Afrika Reich the Movie???

  8. Russell - I have indeed seen the movie and share your assessment. It is pretty bad. My overriding memory of it is the absurd ending on the bicycle!

    I once read an interview with Robert Harris where he said that originally it was going to be made as a big budget thriller directed by Mike Nicholls with Harrison Ford as March... but that when they did audience research the results came back that people didn't know there had been a second world war or that the Nazis had won it. I assume he was only part joking. Whatever, the plan for a big film was dropped.

    I don't think we'll be seeing a film of TAR any time in the future I'm afraid...