Whether writing about Nazi Germany, starting with his best seller Fatherland (1992), or taking on the Roman Empire (Cicero Trilogy, 2006-2015), Stalin's Soviet Union (Archangel, 1998), or the perils of modern-day technology (The Fear Index, 2011), Harris, above all, knows how to tell a good story. Though his settings range in time and place, each novel boasts historical faithfulness, breathtaking plots, and unlikely, intellectual heroes--all undergirded by a fascination with politics. "To say simply that politicians are crooks or that politics is boring is to miss one of the fundamental dramas of life," Harris told BookBrowse. "Politics has such fantastic elements to it--ambition, power, obsession, soaring idealism and cynical betrayal." Influenced by Orwell, Harris's novels illuminate the world's complex, violent power plays, past and present. "1984, I think, is the most influential book ever written, and so you could say the greatest book ever written.... It made political ideas exciting--it highlighted the way human nature can impose itself on politics," Harris told the Independent. Though he never entered politics himself, Harris's television reporting and journalistic forays brought him into the political ring; he was close to members of the New Labour party, including Prime Minister Tony Blair, before a high-profile break with him over the Iraq War.
Born in Nottingham, Harris (1957--), who grew up on a council estate, studied English at Cambridge and embarked on a journalism career with the BBC in 1978. In 1987, he became political editor for the Observer and, in 2003, was named "Columnist of the Year" in the British Press Awards. During this time, Harris had already written a number of nonfiction works, including a book coauthored with Jeremy Paxman about chemical and biological warfare, one about the media's role in the Falklands War, and an account of the forged Hitler diaries fiasco.
Harris's move to fiction came unexpectedly, after publishing Selling Hitler in 1986. During his research, Harris had come across Hitler's plans for the world after he had won the war, and the author started to imagine the social and geopolitical "what if's": would a Nazi empire have spread and lasted, and if so, by what means? How would Hitler have explained the disappearance of Europe's Jews? "The only way to answer [these questions] was to imagine characters in that world and that was the moment I walked through the looking glass into fiction," Harris told the Guardian. "It was overwhelming and exhilarating as well as a much better tool to do what I had wanted to do through non-fiction." The success of Fatherland allowed him to purchase a former vicarage near Newbury, Berkshire, with his wife, Gill Hornby, and their four children--as well as paved the way for future literary successes.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
In his first novel, a best-selling alternative history and police procedural (which was published widely, except in Germany), Harris, then chief columnist at the Sunday Times, posits a world where Germany won World War II. In 1964 Berlin, on the eve of Hitler's 75th birthday, the Fatherland is preparing for a grand celebration and a conciliatory visit from the U.S. president--a cold war marks the relationship between America and the Greater German Reich. When the drowned body of a high-ranking Nazi is discovered and a cover-up ensues, S.S. officer Xavier March starts to investigate. A trail leads to other mysterious deaths and, eventually, a decades-old conspiracy about the "final solution" that could topple the expansive Nazi regime.
"I don't think that in the long run the Nazi state could have survived the revelations about the Holocaust," Harris told the New York Times, "and it wouldn't have been possible for any American President to deal with them. The regime would have collapsed from internal pressures, just as the Soviet Union did." Fatherland is entirely concrete in its details, characters, and setting.
After the great success of Fatherland, Harris's second novel reprises the Second World War era--this time from the vantage point of Bletchley Park and the breaking of the German Enigma code. "I loved the idea of a code breaker as detective, of a man searching out for meaning in what appears to be random and chaotic," he said in a New York Times interview. "This is the heart of all mysteries." Inspired by mathematician Alan Turing, Harris researched the history of naval warfare, interviewed men and women who worked at Bletchley Park, and grappled with the complex mathematics of code breaking.
In February 1943, after cracking a Nazi code, young, exhausted mathematician Thomas Jericho is recalled from Cambridge to Bletchley Park after the Nazi U-boat codes are suddenly changed. With three U.S. merchant marine convoys heading directly into 100 U-boats in the Atlantic, tension mounting, and a love interest who vanishes, Jericho realizes a spy may be operating out of Bletchley. He must break the Enigma code anew before it's too late. "Harris has fashioned a story that is as humane, intelligent and gripping as documentary fiction can get," reported the Financial Times. The novel went on to become a major 2001 film, written by Tom Stoppard, starring Kate Winslett and Dougray Scott, and directed by Michael Apted.
ANCIENT ROME & THE CICERO TRILOGY
"What Tom Clancy did for submarine-ops in The Hunt for Red October and James Cameron did for the Titanic, Harris does for ancient Roman engineering and the death throes of a doomed city," wrote the Oregonian. Pompeii, inspired by a new study Harris had read about the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius (and in lieu, he said, of writing about the Walt Disney "empire"), recounts the tragic events of August 24, A.D. 79, by blending real and fictional characters into a historical mystery, romance, thriller, and social commentary. Although the ending isn't exactly a surprise, Harris nonetheless creates preternatural suspense and puts a human face on tragedy. He drew many of his political insights--the idea of how to portray imperial hubris and an empire in crisis, for example--from his journalistic access to the New Labour government and post-9/11 America.
Young Marcus Attilus Primus is the new chief engineer of the his local, 60-mile-long aqueduct. When a drought threatens the area, he travels to Pompeii to investigate damage to the aqueduct and its possible water contamination. Attilus meets Corelia, the daughter of a real estate speculator, who may be the source of the problems with the water supply. As he learns that Mt. Vesuvius could blow its top at any moment, Attilus races to escape the conspirators and warn Pompeii's inhabitants of the volcano's impending eruption--and rescue Corelia, as well. (**** SELECTION Mar/Apr 2004)
A Novel of Ancient Rome (2006)
Tiro, who served as his secretary and confidant for three decades, wrote the first biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero, which disappeared in the Middle Ages. Harris, in the first novel of the Cicero Trilogy, aptly re-creates Cicero's rise to power (along with his famous political battles) in first-century B.C. Rome. Quoting extensively from Cicero's works, he uses Tiro's perspective to chronicle Cicero's ascension from a poor, unknown lawyer to brilliant orator and consul, one of the highest elected officials, in Rome, at the age of 42.
Harris found Cicero intriguing because "[h]e makes endless mistakes; it's the fact that he's brilliant but fallible that makes him compelling. He's also cowardly but brave, pompous but full of mischief--a very curious mix of qualities that I found very human and appealing" (Bookseller). The novel's themes of power also reverberate today. "While Harris has created a fascinating novel based on Cicero's rise to political power, what makes the book resonate is the realization that, in 2,000 years, neither people nor politics have much changed," wrote the Denver Post. "And while Cicero is largely set up as the man on the side of angels, it's a desperate game where power, not justice, is the ultimate goal." (*** Jan/Feb 2007)
A Novel of Ancient Rome (2009)
Narrated, again, by Tiro, this middle volume follows directly from Imperium, starting with Cicero's attempt to hold the state together as consul of Rome--the position of supreme authority he had obtained against all odds in Imperium. But when forces conspire against him, Cicero succumbs to ambition rather than rule of law. As the Roman Republic starts to erode and young rival Julius Caesar, in the background, plots to take center stage, Cicero is forced into exile.
"In a way, this whole trilogy--and this book in particular--is a duel between Cicero and Caesar--two ambitious men, but with very different forms of ambition," Harris told NPR. Cicero, he noted, only wanted to rise within the system's ranks, whereas Caesar desired to remake the republic in his own image. "The clash between these two men, who are sort of in a way almost wary friends and admirers--that's really the dynamic of the book." Less a crime procedural (the novel opens with a young slave murdered as human sacrifice) than a ruthless political chess match, the novel contains lavish classical oratory and Senate debates. "It is a first-rate performance, one that bodes well for the denouement to come" (Los Angeles Times).
A Novel of Ancient Rome (2015)
The "denouement to come" recounts Cicero's final decade and a half, starting with his exile in 38 B.C.--following his failed opposition to Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, all vying for control of Rome. In exchange for his public support of his enemy Caesar, Cicero is allowed to return to Rome. But his homecoming marks only the first step in a long road to redemption that sees his own rise back through the ranks, Caesar's fate on the Ides of March, and the implosion of a political process that portends the collapse of an empire--and a gruesome fate for Cicero. "The real triumph of Dictator is how successfully it channels what is perhaps the supreme fascination of ancient Rome: the degree to which it is at once eerily like our own world and yet profoundly alien" (New York Times Book Review). (**** SELECTION Mar/Apr 2016)
Considering the series as a whole, Harris lauded the craft of historical fiction: "You re-create that world for the reader, yet at the same time it's a commentary on our own time: whatever you select to write is inevitably trying to hold up a mirror to our own age, whether consciously or unconsciously. I do feel there are certain laws of politics that have held good for millennia: everything ends in failure; the very qualities that bring you to the top bring you down; and the electorate are fickle and will turn on you" (Bookseller).
Another international best seller, Archangel uses the past to shed light on the present (and vice versa), this time in Russia. Fluke Kelso, a American historian with books about the Soviet Union's collapse under his belt, attends a conference in 1990s Moscow. Information soon leads him on a search for a valuable, long-buried notebook believed to be Stalin's diary--one that could possibly contain explosive secrets. Kelso's dangerous journey quickly attracts the attention of some unsavory parties as he travels to the edge of the Arctic, in the northern city of Archangel, to ferret out the mysteries surrounding Stalin's life and death.
"' Archangel does more than simply touch the past: its central question--what would happen if the great spirit of Stalin returned to the land he practically destroyed--hovers like a storm cloud over Russia today," wrote the New York Times. "His contemporary portrait of the city, overflowing with sin, possibility and hopelessness, seems unbelievable only if you have never spent a day there." In 2005, the BBC made the novel into a miniseries, starring Daniel Craig and directed by Jon Jones.
THE GHOST: In this roman a clef and indictment of the war in Iraq, a ghostwriter is hired to finish the memoirs about a thinly veiled Tony Blair when its original author mysteriously drowns. (**** Mar/Apr 2008)
THE FEAR INDEX: Harris follows an American expat hedge fund investor living in Geneva, who uses a computer program that relies on investors' "fear index." (**** SELECTION May/June 2012)
AN OFFICER AND A SPY: Harris shines new light on France's infamous Dreyfus Affair in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. (**** SELECTION May/June 2014)
CONCLAVE: Harris explores present-day Rome and the Vatican amid the chaotic, politically volatile search for a new pope. (**** Mar/Apr 2017)
BY JESSICA TEISCH