Friday, January 31, 2014

Britain + 1952 + Nazi Occupation = DOMINION, Espionage Thriller from C. J. Sanson

My father, who adopted England as his homeland in 1933, was veddy, veddy British when he arrived in America in 1948; as a small child in the early 1950s in New Jersey, I used to correct his accent to "standard American."

He's long gone, but I can almost hear him tapping the dottle out of his pipe, catch the scent of vanilla-blended tobacco, hear him exclaim, "Damn and blast! Five more books you need to purchase, after reading C. J. Sansom's latest? How do you expect to make a living, my girl?!"

Good thing I'm not reviewing for a living. Because it's true: Sansom's alternate history, turned suspense thriller with plenty of espionage and investigation, makes me determined to pick up all his earlier work.

DOMINION already took a British award for alternative history, and Mulholland Books (a Little, Brown imprint) issued it in the United States this week. The premise is this: Suppose Churchill hadn't ever taken the leadership of England, and instead, Chamberlain's appeasement strategy had continued ... all the way to a reluctant agreement that Germany's forces monitor English politics, and Germany take over the former colonies known as the Dominion. It's "Remembrance Day," now a day to memorialize England's defeat:
.. the King had sat expressionless, only raising a hand occasionally, his body angled away from Hitler's. Afterwards David's father has said "enough," that was it he was off to live with his brother in New Zealand, and David would come too if he knew what was good for him, never mind his Civil Service job. Thank God, he added feelingly, David's mother hadn't lived to see this.

Sarah was looking over at the Queen. "Poor woman," she said.

David glanced over. He said very quietly, "She shouldn't have let them make her their puppet."
To David Fitzgerald, the occupation by Nazi Germany is intolerable. What can he do? Almost without meaning to, he joins the Resistance -- protecting his wife Sarah from that knowledge. Soon he's engaged in trying to rescue his old college friend Frank Muncaster, who (in a very fragile mind, in a mental hospital) may have the secret that the Resistance forces need to change the balance of power.

But David has a secret of his own, one that's almost intolerable in the anti-Semitic world that the Germans have enforced. And it destabilizes him into an almost-affair, as he lurches into espionage and action.
He knew he was not a physical coward, his service in Norway had shown him that, and it had needed courage to spy at the Office. Yes in a curious way, although what he did there was treasonable, he had still somehow felt enfolded, protected, by the Civil Service. What he was about to do now was utterly different and he felt exposed. He looked at his watch. Time to go.
I resist the notion of alternative history -- and yet Orwell's 1984 is often on my mind, when the news is on TV, and when we all use the social media. I think DOMINION will stay with me in much the same way. Looking at it again for this review, my stomach clenched in the same tension as at the first reading. Well-written suspense, in a believable framework -- with a huge amount at risk, and characters who don't understand why it's their task to carry, but ... who go forward because they are trying to do the right thing, even though all the choices are wrong. That's noir.

(PS: Had my father stayed in England ... he'd have had David's secret to contend with.)

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