By Robert Harris
A new thriller from Robert Harris is always something to look forward to. Over the course of his 12-book career, Harris has established a well-earned reputation as one of the most thoughtful thriller writers around. His is a literary style that blends historical reportage with the compelling power of a master storyteller. Irrespective of the context, he consistently compels his readers to keep turning the page and Munich in no way bucks this trend.
The novel is set in September 1938 – an era that is familiar territory for Harris. His first novel, Fatherland (and the one which enabled him to give up his journalistic career and become a full-time novelist) was set in a world where Germany had won the Second World War. Munich, though, is set in and around the conference which saw European leaders – primarily British prime minister Neville Chamberlain – seek to dissuade Hitler from invading Czechoslovakia over what was he saw was lost German territory.
Amidst the multitude of real-life characters are two fictional leads – one British, one German. Hugh Legat is a high flyer in the British civil service who serves as one of Chamberlain’s junior private secretaries; Paul Hartmann is a member of the German diplomatic corps and supporter of the anti-Hitler resistance. Contemporaries from Oxford University, they haven’t seen each other for six years but seismic events conspire to ensure they cross paths once again.
The narrative takes place over four days and although we are aware of the outcome – Chamberlain’s proclamation of winning “peace in our time” has long since taken root in historical infamy – Harris nonetheless delivers a gripping piece of work, one that effortlessly transports us back to those days riven with tension and fear, good and evil. He takes us deep inside the machinations of both Whitehall and Wilhemstrasse (Berlin’s government district) as the abyss of war seems once again to edge ever closer.
Rich detail abounds – Harris must have undertaken a serious amount of research before he put pen to paper – and this helps counter the fact that this book, unlike many of his others, does not dazzle the reader with twists and turns. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be a problem but Harris’ narrative powers ensure that it matters little. Instead, we are treated to a dramatic recreation of a pivotal moment in history, one underpinned by a rich cornucopia of comment and insight. Chamberlain, for example, emerges as a far more sympathetic character than his portrayal in many history books.
Thought-provoking, entertaining and, as ever, highly readable, Munich is a very worthy addition to Harris’ rich body of work.