My own writing and research take me back to the Middle Ages and, more recently, the 16th century Eastern Europe. So it is refreshing to come across historical fiction that is much closer to our own times, and set in the period that I am also quite interested in but do not know as much about – namely World Word II.
Robert Harris’s Munich is everything its jacket promises it to be – fast-paced, high-stakes, full of secrets and twists. Set against the backdrop of one of history’s most infamous and pivotal events – England’s appeasement of Hitler as he moved to annex the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in September 1938 – it brings together two old Oxford friends, one English and one German, now (seemingly) on the opposite sides of a deep ideological divide.
Hugh Legat travels with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to a last-ditch conference in Munich where the British delegation hopes to avert a war in Europe. Paul Hartmann, who works in Germany’s Foreign Office, arrives the same morning on the Fuhrer’s train from Berlin. Hartmann, secretly opposed to the by now overtly authoritarian Nazi regime, carries a document that can turn the Munich negotiations upside down. Now he has to find a way to pass it on to Legat without attracting the Nazis’ attention and putting his life in jeopardy.
I am of two minds about this novel.
On the one hand, the political and the personal drama playing out on its pages is exactly what readers are looking for from a historical thriller. It is a page-turner with clear, concise prose that offers just enough historical detail to evoke the feverish atmosphere of that era when dark clouds were gathering over the heads of unsuspecting populations in London, Munich, and Berlin who turned out to cheer the conference participants believing they were witnessing the forging of a “peace for out time.”
Harris does a great job describing the tidy, leafy streets of the Bavarian capital with women in flower-print dresses pushing baby strollers as the imposing facades of the Nazi party headquarters adorned with massive swastika banners loom ominously over them.
Unfortunately, Munich has one major flaw.
It lacks any well-rounded and interesting female characters. There are women in the story, of course – an unfaithful wife and a painfully stereotypical secretary who sleeps with a government official and feeds classified information to him. The late 1930s Germany or England may not have been places where women occupied prominent public positions, but research has shown that they played larger and more serious roles behind the scenes than many had previously thought. It would have benefited the story to have at least one of them to balance out the male cast of an otherwise gripping and well-researched novel.
If you enjoy historical fiction, check out The Greenest Branch, my novel based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. It is FREE to read on Kindle Unlimited, and available in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces.