It’s 1938, and Europe holds its breath: but can two old friends stop Hitler and avert dis­as­ter?

The Guardian - Review - - Thrillers - Munich by Robert Har­ris An­thony Quinn An­thony Quinn’s lat­est novel is Eureka (Cape).

Lon­don, late Septem­ber 1938. Slit trenches are be­ing dug in Green Park and at home chil­dren are fit­ted with gas masks. Hitler is de­ter­mined to in­vade Cze­choslo­vakia in his scheme to re­claim lost Ger­man ter­ri­tory. Cham­ber­lain is equally de­ter­mined to pre­vent an­other war. Europe holds its breath as a last chance for peace goes up for grabs at a con­fer­ence in Munich.

As his­tory this feels so well known as to defy a fur­ther re­hearsal. Cham­ber­lain’s piece of pa­per has be­come as pa­thetic in its way as Des­de­mona’s hand­ker­chief: a white flag in the face of on­com­ing tragedy. As fic­tion, though, we’re just get­ting started. Amid this febrile at­mos­phere Robert Har­ris has parachuted one of his trusty old-school pro­tag­o­nists through the in­ter­stices of his­tor­i­cal events, stick­ing tight to the record but sug­gest­ing how things might have turned out dif­fer­ently. Hugh Le­gat, late of the For­eign Of­fice, now a pri­vate sec­re­tary to the PM, is privy to the “real truth” about Bri­tain’s home air de­fence. The RAF has only 20 fighter planes “with work­ing guns” to de­fend the en­tire coun­try, so a war would be not only morally re­pug­nant but strate­gi­cally dis­as­trous. Le­gat, a bril­liant Bal­liol scholar, is also an up­right, down­right, forth­right stiff, per­haps de­lib­er­ately: Har­ris doesn’t want a “colour­ful” lead steal­ing any of the nar­ra­tive’s thun­der.

Mean­while, in Ber­lin, a high-born diplo­mat named Paul Hart­mann has joined a group of con­spir­a­tors plot­ting against Hitler. Hart­mann has got hold of a doc­u­ment out­lin­ing Ger­many’s ex­pan­sion­ist am­bi­tions, in­clud­ing their in­ten­tion to launch a sur­prise at­tack and “smash” the Czechs. If the plot­ters can some­how con­vey this dy­na­mite to a sym­pa­thetic ear in White­hall it might pro­voke the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment to take ac­tion, and stop “the mad­man” in his tracks. The first hun­dred or so pages of Munich are full of tight lit­tle hud­dles, grave-faced men dart­ing in and out of of­fices. At times the doc­u­men­tarist in Har­ris seems to be rather crowd­ing out the nov­el­ist, hug­ging the shore of ver­i­fi­able fact in­stead of boldly strik­ing out on the chop­pier wa­ters of fic­tion. I’m not sure, for in­stance, of our need to know that the Führer’s train south to Munich went “at an av­er­age speed of 55 kilo­me­tres per hour”. But then a cou­ple of pages later Hart­mann, aboard the train as an as­sis­tant trans­la­tor, vis­its the toi­let and notes the tiny steel swastikas adorn­ing the taps – the vig­i­lant nov­el­ist has re­asserted him­self. “No es­cap­ing the Führer’s aes­thetic, thought Hart­mann, even when one took a shit.”

Af­ter the pi­anis­simo first sec­tion the book turns up the vol­ume as the dual plot­lines con­verge: Hart­mann, who was a friend of Le­gat’s at Bal­liol, is re­lieved to dis­cover that the English­man is also on his way to Munich, aboard the PM’s plane. Both men must op­er­ate un­der a low­er­ing cloud of sus­pi­cion as they inch closer to the re­spec­tive cen­tres of power, re­vealed to us in telling pen por­traits. Cham­ber­lain, near­ing 70, a Vic­to­rian throw-back in stiff wing­col­lars, con­stantly sur­prises his staff with his en­ergy and his “os­ten­ta­tiously mod­est” way with the spot­light. Hitler, im­pa­tient and dour, presents a more enig­matic fig­ure: how did this un­ex­cep­tional man (“it was al­most com­pelling how non­de­script he was”, thinks Le­gat) be­witch a mighty na­tion into sur­ren­der? And just for good mea­sure, Har­ris throws in this sul­phurous fire­cracker: he has the body odour of “a work­man who had not bathed or changed his shirt in a week”. On top of ev­ery­thing else, Hitler stank.

As the ne­go­ti­a­tions grind on the scene is en­livened with touch­ing squig­gles of de­tail, such as the crowd out­side the Bri­tish del­e­ga­tion’s ho­tel strik­ing up with “The Lam­beth Walk” to make the vis­i­tors feel at home. Munich it­self comes to life in the poignant con­trast be­tween the gra­cious city of botan­i­cal gar­dens Hart­mann once loved and the new bru­tal­ist pa­rade-ground spiked with gi­gan­tic flag­poles and swastika ban­ners. Dur­ing a mid­night flit out­side Munich he gives Le­gat a ter­ri­ble glimpse of where Nazi Ger­many is head­ing, and both men come to a pri­vate reck­on­ing of their fail­ure to make a mark. A tense en­counter in Hitler’s apart­ment is the book’s thwarted cli­max.

A tan­ta­lis­ing ad­di­tion to the in­ex­haustible game of “what if?”, Munich is one of Robert Har­ris’s more con­tained per­for­mances, less dar­ing than Father­land , not as com­pul­sive as Pom­peii , his best novel. The story of a cri­sis averted is, per­force, some­thing of a pulled punch. But it makes for an omi­nous fore­shad­ow­ing of the main event. “Our en­e­mies are small worms,” the Führer would tell his gen­er­als in Au­gust 1939. “I saw them in Munich.”

Har­ris sticks tight to the his­tor­i­cal record but sug­gests how things might have turned out dif­fer­ently

342pp, Hutchin­son, £20

To or­der Munich for £17 go to book­shop.the­guardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, on­line or­ders only. Phone or­ders min p&p of £1.99.

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