It's been a while since I've read a heart-stopping sort of story due either to sheer suspense or a sense of dread that not all will be well when you so intensely wish it to be. I can tell you the last time I read a book like that actually--Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 to be exact--and that was back in 2008! It was a nail-biter for me, and while it was so scary because it could possibly be true, I had a similar reaction to C.J. Sansom's Dominion, the premise of which I know is not true and thankfully history played out much differently. But still . . .
Dominion is an alternative history story (there is probably a proper name for the genre?) where England lost at Dunkirk and capitulated rather than going on to fight and win. It's 1952 and the Fascists are in power, the Nazis govern, and the police are in the German's pockets. Racism and antisemitism are rampant. It's all very Vichy-like, though in this case the Germans are a palpable presence. But people are tired. Churchill is in hiding, the leader of the Resistance, but getting on in years. The Resistance are growing stronger however.
To appease the British the Jewish population remains, but there are rumblings of their relocation East becoming imminent. As Churchill has aged so too has Hitler and everyone knows the German regime is at a rather precarious moment in their Empire. They may occupy most of Europe, but the war to the East against Russia continues--the fighting mired in an unwinnable struggle. Ever more men are sent to the Front and good Germans have begun emigrating and occupying those territories won through bitter struggles, but their hold is tenuous.
The story is told (all third person actually) from the perspective of several different people. The most sympathetic and the characters whose survival is most worrisome is David Fitzgerald and his wife Sarah, several different Resistance members, and scientist Frank Muncaster. Frank is a pivotal character and it is on him that whether everyone else lives or dies rests. There are a number of baddies, but the two causing all my worries and dread are William Syme, an officer with London Special Branch and Gunther Hoth, a Gestapo Sturmbannfuhrer. Syme is a smarmy, wheedly sort of man eager to please and quite thuggish. He would sell out his own mother if he knew she had some secret against the State. He wants to impress those above and get transferred North to more plum jobs. Hoth is newly arrived from Germany and his job is essentially to hunt out Jews. But he is on special assignment given his past successes and analytical abilities, and it revolves around Frank Muncaster. Hoth is somewhat jaded, his brother is dead and his ex-wife and son have moved East, since the nature of his job means separation from his family, but he dedicated and driven and very good at what he does.
This is a page turner, but part of the strain and dread (yes, I know, strong words, but then I tend to get too wrapped up in my characters' lives and even though I keep reading, I feel, too, like shielding my eyes from what might potentially be coming--I also have a very, very vivid imagination) is knowing how David is putting himself and Sarah on the line to help his college friend Frank Muncaster. David is a social servant working in the Dominion offices where he has limited access to sensitive files. Sarah, a Pacifist, has no idea of David's clandestine activities. Their relationship has been strained ever since their young son died. He was the bond keeping them together and now they feel as though they are mostly just going through the motions.
And Frank Muncaster? He is an interesting character, quite sympathetic in his own way as well, yet sadly a victim of circumstances and an unhappy childhood. He, like his elder brother, is a scientist, but Frank has always been a little odd. He was sent away to Scotland to be educated and being "different", really a misfit who never quite fit in despite his genius, was tormented by his childhood compatriots. He did better at Oxford where David helped him along and kept him under his wing along with another school chum. When Frank becomes privy to secrets of his brother, now living in America and working with the American government on top-secret scientific experiments that could change the direction of the world's politics, a power struggle begins with each side wanting control of him. The Americans have asked that he be smuggled out via the British Resistance--which is where David's problems begin. There is a catch, Frank is incarcerated in a mental hospital.
Got all that?
Yes, and that is really just the tip if the iceberg. This is a 700+ page novel and is many-layered, well researched and heart stopping in its plotting. I read the second half of it on my recent long car rides, glued to the pages yet wanting at times to cover my eyes. My copy, the second photo on the right with the red lettering and sepia tone is the UK edition, which I thought perfectly atmospheric and it does capture the feeling well. After having finished the book, however, I must say the US cover design is actually spot on. I won't give anything away, but towards the end of the story there is a long scene set in London during one of the worst bouts with smog the city ever beheld--hindering as much as helping everyone involved.
This is not my first encounter with C.J. Sansom. I read and thoroughly enjoyed another of his war stories, Winter in Madrid. He is meticulous in his research and the stories are on the heavy side---both in the plotting and the complexity of the situations the characters find themselves. But I felt quite rewarded on both counts. I suspect this has earned a slot on the end-of-the-year favorites' list. And I still must get to the Matthew Shardlake mysteries. I am obviously in for a treat with them.