For the most part, our fictional heroes are working for the good guys, even if the twists and turns of the plot throw some doubt onto how ‘good’ our masters really are. However, I have been inspired by a thread of books where the hero is working for the bad guys, at least ostensibly, or is struggling to do good under an oppressive power. For the writer there is the challenge of allowing the hero to retain his/her morality without being exposed, dismissed or eliminated by superiors that have no time for such niceties.
Volker Kutscher’s Gideon Rath is a police detective working under the faction-ridden Weimar Republic as communists, right-wing nationalists and Nazis vie for power. The TV adaption Babylon Berlin is excellent, with three seasons on Netflix exploring the steamy, violent world of late 1920s Germany. Rath and his sidekick Lotte strive to uphold the law in the face of official corruption, political manoeuvring and international intrigue. Netflix is yet to screen season 4, though it has been aired in Germany and season 5 has apparently been commissioned.
Phillip Kerr’s ‘Berlin Noir’ series begins with Bernie Gunther as a private eye working what should be routine jobs in a Germany increasingly dominated by the Nazis. The shadow of the times fall over him in encounters with Brownshirts and the self-serving schemes of the Nazi hierarchy.
Luke McCallin’s Gregor Reinhardt is an officer in the Abwehr, German military intelligence, during WW2. Fundamentally a good man he struggles to conduct honest investigations amid the violence and bland brutality taking place all around him. His constant dilemma is that he is working under the Nazis, and at times must collaborate with Nazi colleagues, without becoming complicit in their crimes.
In Fatherland Robert Harris creates an alternative 1960s Germany where Hitler won the war and dominates western Europe. History is written by the victors, so detective Xavier March has been schooled to believe who the good guys are- until a criminal investigation opens his eyes about the true horrors of the regime he serves.
Len Deighton’s SS-GB sees Scotland Yard detective Douglas Archer operating under SS command in a Britain that had fallen to a German invasion. Rival German police and intelligence agencies vie with each other to influence and intimidate his investigation as it grows in scope. Archer has to swallow his resentment, retain his patriotism and self-respect without falling foul of his new masters.
There are of course many others, set for example in the communist bloc or against the background of colonial rule, but the works mentioned encapsulate what I wanted to achieve in my Room Z series.
Quite a few authors are now writing detective novels and thrillers set in Nazi-dominated Europe or Blitz Britain, so the field felt rather crowded. However, for a decade I’ve been following a thread known affectionately as ‘A Very British Civil War’ exploring various alternative history scenarios for 1930s Britain. Detailed research led me to consider what the UK would be like if it had fallen under the control of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the way Germany had fallen to the Nazis. Several 1930s-set novels use the BUF or its supporters as the bad guys, but none to my knowledge were written from the viewpoint of a hero embedded within the fascist movement. Here lay fertile ground for a good man to be working under an evil regime.
I then peddled back slightly, asking how this could this come about. Quite how MI5 informer Hugh Clifton infiltrates the fascist intelligence agency Department Z, and how he becomes trapped in his role is explained in Blackshirt Masquerade. Once Hugh is stuck working under the BUF, with fascist friends and a fascist lover he adapts a Hippocratic philosophy of ‘do no harm’ whilst avoiding sliding into darkness.
Alternative history threads are subtle in the first novel but grow stronger in Blackshirt Conspiracy set against the Abdication Crisis of 1936 when Hugh and Sissy must pick their way between competing plots. In a tussle between the king and the government, the church and the people, communists and fascists, the press and the establishment, picking the side of the angels had never been harder.
Blackshirt Conspiracy is available for pre-order from Amazon and is published on October 10th by the Historia Imprint of Level Best Books. All the books discussed above are in print and widely available.