Image: Vicky Ibbetson / Penguin
Few thriller writers have attained both critical acclaim and public devotion to the same extent as
Robert Harris. He first made his name as a star journalist, becoming a well-known face on Panorama and Newsnight before being appointed political editor of The Observer aged 30. Nevertheless, it was when he finally sat down to write the opening sentence of his first novel that he knew he had found his true calling: it felt, he says, “like having had a powerful car in the garage and switching it on, and realising that there was literally nothing you could not do.”
That book was
, an alternative-reality thriller set in a world in which Hitler had been victorious; it was an immediate and phenomenal bestseller. It also established a preoccupation with the Second World War that has continued throughout Harris’s work up to his 2021 novel, Fatherland , about the Nazi missile programm, but his books have ranged over many lands and epochs, from Paris at the time of the Dreyfus affair ( V2 ) to the ancient world. An Officer and a Spy
Harris combines a journalist’s nose for how the world really works with true narrative flair; he has no interest in stylistic self-indulgence, but sees himself as part of an ancient, essential storytelling tradition. “Imagine everyone trailing back to the camp after a day's work, wanting to be told a story, and the chap by the fireside says ‘Actually, I'm not going to tell you a story tonight, guys, I'm going to concentrate on my prose’,” Harris has said. “He'd have been hit over the head with a club.” But though his style may not be showy, Harris always puts the right word in the right place.
As his fans await the arrival of his 15th novel,
, in September, here are six books that might get newcomers hooked on Harris. Act of Oblivion
In Harris’s debut novel it’s 1964 and the elderly, reclusive Hitler rules over an expansive Third Reich. The US is contemplating forgiving and forgetting the Nazis’ land-grab and resuming good relations with Germany – but somebody is about to throw a spanner in the works.
Berlin policeman Xavier March has been tasked with investigating the recent suspicious death of the retired Nazi official Josef Bühler. (In real life Bühler was hanged not long after the War.) As March digs deeper, he discovers something that could make Germany a pariah state once again: long-suppressed evidence that the Nazis carried out the Final Solution.
March is a wonderfully realised character in the great tradition of dogged detectives who pursue the truth for its own sake at great personal risk; but equally memorable is Harris’s portrayal of how the Germans and the rest of the world persuaded themselves to believe the Nazis’ claims that millions of missing Jews had simply been “resettled”. Best of all are the coruscating wit and ingenuity with which Harris creates his alternative universe – after years as a journalist, the joy with which he dives into the world of the imagination is palpable.
How do you make a novel tense and exciting when the reader knows how it will end? Harris overcame this problem brilliantly in
(1995), the story of the Bletchley Park codebreakers, and does it again in Enigma Pompeii, even though we know that most of the characters will have perished in the eruption of Vesuvius by the final page.
It is 79 AD and engineer Marcus Attilius has been sent to work out why the magnificent Aqua Augusta aqueduct near Pompeii is malfunctioning. With the help of Pliny the Elder he begins to suspect it’s a sign that Vesuvius is about to blow its top, but his efforts to raise the alarm are foiled by an evil businessman who delights in feeding his slaves to eels as a hobby.
Harris has an almost poetic feel for the intricate details of hydraulics and vulcanology with which he regales us, but what’s most striking is his ability to evoke the everyday life of the ancient Romans – and his mischievous comparisons between their overweening empire and 21st-century America. Clearly very much at home in this period, he would return to it for his three splendid novels about the life of Cicero –
, Imperium and Lustrum . Dictator
(2007) The Ghost
Following on from the sly, lightly disguised reflections on the politics of today in his historical novels, here Harris tackles 21st-century politics head-on. Dubbed “The Blair Snitch Project” by one newspaper, the novel draws on Harris’s relationship with Tony Blair – he was a supporter and drinking buddy of Blair before he became Prime Minister in 1997 – and reflects his later disillusionment.
The book is narrated by a professional ghostwriter who has been hired to help ex-PM Adam Lang with his memoirs and soon unearths plenty of skeletons in his cupboard, leading him to suspect that the apparently accidental death of Lang’s previous ghostwriter merits further investigation.
The dodgy Lang both is and isn’t a portrait of Blair, but there is no mistaking the real anger behind Harris’s urbane prose as he explores the disastrous effect on British foreign policy of Lang’s closeness to a bellicose US president. In 2010 the novel was filmed by Roman Polanski as
The Ghost Writer, with Pierce Brosnan at his most smoothly emollient as Lang.
Compared with the ambition and excitement of most of Harris’s books,
Conclave seems almost perversely undramatic and small-scale: it largely consists of a hundred-odd blokes sitting in a room and talking. But when the room is the Sistine Chapel and the blokes are the Cardinals gathered to elect a new Pope, the stakes are high – and in fact this underrated novel, one of my personal favourites, is as much of a page-turner as anything Harris has written.
He has described it as a homage to CP Snow’s
, another novel that makes gripping reading out of the petty enmities and horse-trading that guide the course of an election. Responsible for keeping in check the almighty clash of egos within the conclave is the elderly, decent Cardinal Lomeli, who finds himself tasked with winkling out the compromising secrets that may render the four leading Papal candidates ineligible. The Masters
Deliciously claustrophobic and making ironic fun from the gap between what these holy men preach and practise, this
jeu d’esprit is one of Harris’s most purely enjoyable books.
Recently adapted as the film
Munich: The Edge of War – starring Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain – this is Harris’s account of how Chamberlain and Hitler thrashed out the Munich Agreement in September 1938.
Again, it’s a book that generates almost unbearable tension even though we know the outcome, as Hitler-hating German diplomat Paul Hartmann devises a scheme to smuggle secret Nazi plans to Chamberlain to make him change his mind about his appeasement policy. History has already issued a massive spoiler as to the outcome, but readers will egg him on breathlessly nevertheless.
This espionage sub-plot has plenty of thrills and spills, but Harris’s dramatisations of the deskbound Munich negotiations are just as exciting in their own way. And the novel truly helps you to understand Chamberlain, and why he did the wrong thing for the right reason.
(2019) The Second Sleep
At first this looks like it’s going to be Harris’s take on the Middle Ages: we’re told at the beginning that we’re in the year 1468, as a young priest, Christopher Fairfax, travels on horseback to a remote Exmoor village to conduct a fellow cleric’s funeral.
But it soon becomes apparent that we’re a long way from the Medieval period as we know it, when Fairfax examines the dead man’s collection of antiquities – which includes “one of the devices used by the ancients to communicate … On the back was the ultimate symbol of the ancients’ hubris and blasphemy – an apple with a bite taken out of it.”
Yes, after recreating the past so brilliantly in so many novels, here Harris is turning a speculative eye on the future. Several centuries after some unspecified disaster caused by the human race’s over-reliance on technology, the clock has been reset and Britain is a theocracy where the ungodly and dangerous practice of scientific inquiry has been outlawed.
There’s something fishy about the old priest’s death, and Fairfax’s investigation leads him to question the Church teachings he’s unhesitatingly swallowed all his life. A philosophical work about the dangers of trusting in science too much – and too little – this is also Harris’s finest feat of imaginative world-building since
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