Review: Munich by Robert Harris

MunichFor setting, character, plot—and the ability to navigate a moral swamp—few do it better than Robert Harris, whose latest historical thriller, Munich, is the engrossing tale of Neville Chamberlain’s last-ditch negotiations with Adolf Hitler, against the backdrop of a covert scheme to overthrow the Führer, which is even richer for its ironic insight.

History has been unkind to Prime Minister Chamberlain; rightfully so, you could argue, though Harris’s novel paints a more sympathetic portrait of the man than most historians. Chamberlain’s “peace for our time” speech on 30 September 1938 regarding the Munich Agreement, and his policy of appeasement toward Adolf Hitler’s Germany, have been voraciously analysed and discussed by scholars and pub historians, and it’s fertile ground for an author of Harris’ skill. He presents the Prime Minster as a man determined—and desperate—to avoid war, but cognisant enough to plan for one, should the worst happen.

Harris’s interpretation of Chamberlain is shrewder and more calculating. I imagine this will bother some readers with preexisting ironclad notions of who Chamberlain was, and what he has come to represent. For me, with only a rudimentary knowledge of the man and overarching events, I was happy to be swept away by Harris’s compulsive plot revolving around his two fictional protagonists, Hugh Legat, one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries, and Paul Hartmann, a German diplomat and member of the anti-Hitler resistance; former friends, now reunited, more than half a decade later, with the future of Europe in the balance. Hartmann has provided classified documents to Legat, which confirm Hitler’s real ambitions for Europe post the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Hartmann’s hope is that Chamberlain will stand firm, be the rock Europe needs, which would allow the anti-Hitler resistance the time to topple their leader, and ensure peace.

Munich works because it doesn’t rely on cringe-worthy overshadowing of events to come, or portraying Hitler as a devilish villain. Harris contains events to the four day period during which the Munich Agreement was signed. It is thrilling—breathless, even— because the consequences of those momentous days, while known by the reader, are not mentioned in the text. We know Chamberlain, in his vanity,  did not grasp the reality of Hitler; but the characters in Munich are dealing purely with hypotheticals. Will their actions avert war? Could their actions backfire and actually instigate a crisis? The uncertainly adds an additional layer of tension to the excitement already exuded from the sublime cloak-and-dagger spy stuff.

Munich is a vividly rendered, fictionalised account of those fateful days in 1938.  It is as gripping and as well-crafted as the author’s best work. Robert Harris has spun  a terrific yarn, full of details gleaned from painstaking research.

ISBN: 9780091959203
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: Hutchinson
Publisher: Cornerstone
Publish Date: 21-Sep-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom


Review: Conclave by Robert Harris

9780091959173As the title of Robert Harris’s new novel suggests, Conclave is about a hypothetical 2018 papal conclave. After the death of the pope (who, though unnamed, has a lot in common with Francis) the cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel to vote in his successor. But when you pack more than one hundred ambitious men in a room, each with their own beliefs on how the church should be lead in such tumultuous times, there’s bound to be drama. And Harris delivers in spades: twists, mysteries and complications abound, and form a wonderfully compelling political thriller.

Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, is at the centre of proceedings. His job is to manage the conclave that will elect a new pope — hardly an easy task given the mishmash of strong personalities and beliefs in the room. This is, after all, the ultimate political showdown. You’ve got your traditionalists, those with strong views on the role of women and gay marriage, the liberals who want to modernise the church’s operations and thinking . It seems safe to assume the schisms amongst the papabile are just as seismic in reality, and Harris takes full advantage of such a divisive cast.

The introduction of a cardinal no one has heard of –- Vincent Benítez, a cardinal in pectore, created by the pope in secret  to protect his identity — might seem the biggest complication Lomeli has to deal with. But soon enough he digs up evidence of past and more recent misdemeanours, all of which steer the election process in a new direction. Meanwhile, he is dealing with his own personal crisis of faith, which altogether adds to his likeability, and adds intrigue to what might’ve been a blase character.

Conclave exposes the ancient rituals that constitute the election process, and it’s all very enthralling. Harris doesn’t get bogged down in the minutiae of his research; this is a novel that races along, that’ll keep you turning the pages long into the wee hours of the morning. And even though the ending is sign-posted — the election of the new pope won’t induce too many gasps of surprise — Harris leaves one final twist in reserve until the very end. His new novel is fast, fact-filled, and wholly satisfying; a tour-de-force in ever-tightening suspense.

ISBN: 9780091959173
Format: Paperback (234mm x 154mm x 22mm)
Pages: 304
Imprint: Hutchinson
Publisher: Cornerstone
Publish Date: 22-Sep-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom