Thursday, October 23, 2014

A very different Britain

Great Britain, especially London, was changed forever by the events of World War II.  While British forces eventually came out on the winning side, what if the opposite had happened?  The book The Darkest Hour imagines a London where the Germans have invaded and taken control while the King and pre-war government have fled to Canada.

The events in the book center around policeman John Henry Rossett.  A copper before the war, he was a war hero and even though he fought against the Germans, the occupying forces realize that his cool, detached nature and "by-the-book" officiousness will be useful to them.  He is rehired as a policeman and is given the job of helping to clear out Jewish settlements (where residents are loaded onto trains to be taken away), a job he does dispassionately and efficiently.  He does what he's told without much thought.  Not only have his war experiences damaged him, but he lost his wife and son in a resistance bombing in London.  So now he's without family and performs his duties in a mechanical manner.  He's trusted by the Nazis and grudgingly, if somewhat suspiciously, admired by his British co-workers on the police force.

One day, when clearing out a group of Jewish people from an apartment building, one old man takes Rossett aside and asks him to go back to the flat to retrieve his "treasure."  Rossett goes back and discovers a hole in the wall where a young boy is hiding.  Thinking the boy is the treasure, Rossett gets him out, only to find the boy also has a bag of gold coins.  Rossett dutifully takes the boy to police headquarters and turns him in (the trains have already left for the day), but inexplicably decides to say nothing of the gold coins.

Rossett's Nazi superior is Ernst Koehler, a somewhat sympathetic boss who, as long as everything is going to plan, is easy to deal with.  Unfortunately, the always hovering Herr Schmitt is just waiting to advance his career at the expense of anyone who gets in his way.  Not only the British, but also his fellow Nazi officers are always on their guard around Schmitt.

Before the Jewish boy, Jacob, can be sent to the train, Rossett returns to the jail and retrieves him.  While doing so, he also inadvertently frees some other prisoners, and this involves him in a dangerous game where the resistance, communists and the Nazis are all double-crossing each other.  It seems as if everyone is out to get Rossett, even more so when it emerges that the boy, Jacob, has told his captors that Rossett knows where some valuable diamonds are hidden.

Of course, there has to be a love interest as well, and this is in the form of Kate, secretary to Koehler and niece to Sir James Stirling, an aristocrat who works with the Nazis while secretly leading the resistance.  While Rossett works to stay ahead of all the various factions, he and Kate devise a plan to flee the country with Jacob.  However, time is running out, and the diamonds are a big incentive for everyone to track them down.

The story is very fast-paced and there is a lot of action.  There were several things in the story that didn't ring true for me, though.  Why would Rossett suddenly develop feelings for one of the Jews he was removing?  He'd been doing this job quite a while, and presumably had witnessed many children being deported, so why suddenly develop a conscience?  And why keep the gold?  There was no reason for him to not turn it in to his superiors, as he had always done in the past with valuable property, and he seemed to have no plan for what he was going to do with the gold.  Also, Jacob's grandfather had apparently witnessed Rossett removing Jews for a long time, and while he wasn't brutal in carrying out his duties, there's no real reason why the grandfather would have told Jacob to trust Rossett.  He would have seemed as much of a Nazi operative as anyone else.

If you can overlook those quibbles, however, this is an exciting look at what might have happened if Britain hadn't triumphed in WWII.

Disclaimer:  I received an advanced reader's edition of The Darkest Hour from the GoodReads First Reads program

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