I had the strangest brush with history this weekend.
Like some writers, I don’t have a "day job," and haven’t for about five years. I hurtled straight from a dying gig working among dinosaurs right into scribbling for pay. Freelancing is a roller coaster ride at the best of times so when the work comes, you jump.
So I was on the ball when a publisher asked if I could hustle down to the local airport to pick up former Senator George McGovern. Regardless of your stance on politics or the man personally, you have to admit that he’s had quite the front row seat for American history over the past century. A B-24 Liberator pilot in World War II who flew 35 combat missions into enemy territory. A member of both House and Senate. Friend to John Kennedy and Hunter S. Thompson. The man who went up against the twin monsters of Vietnam and Nixon in a time when both held popular majorities. A guy whose last goal is to live to be 100 so he can see hunger defeated in his time. An intellectual heavyweight by any measure.
In speaking with the 83-year-old professor of history, I could see the whole course of human history spinning on his actions. Let’s imagine that in 1944, McGovern and the rest of the bombing crews fail in their efforts to support ground troops. A few more turn of the screws and there are Nazi flags flying over Trafalgar Square. In 1963, back in the Senate, he convinces Jack Kennedy that his efforts to rally the vote in Texas are a waste and Dealy Plaza becomes just another run-down Dallas landmark. In 1968, while on the phone at the Ambassador hotel, Robert Kennedy is kept just five minutes longer while getting the results from the South Dakota elections from one George McGovern, and Sirhan Sirhan dies in obscurity. On the other hand, McGovern wins the ’72 election, Watergate is never brought to light, and “Tricky Dick” becomes the most celebrated conservative president in history.
This will bend your noodle if you think about it too much.
All this led me to thinking about all the alternate histories out there. When it comes down to it, fiction has always been an elaborate game of “what might have been,” and crime, mysteries and thrillers all hinge on “how it might have happened.” Add that to the unending plethora of crimes that still drive the world and we have a nice convergence of events from which to begin.
The most influential of the alternative histories is Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. With the same bewilderingly complex ideas that influenced other work like Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? (the basis for the equally thought-provoking Blade Runner), it imagines a world in which Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated in 1933. Subsequent leaders, crippled by isolationism, watch as the dominos of Europe fall in turn before the U.S. is finally taken under German control by 1947. The book is a weighty mix of history and fiction populated by spies, civilians and agents of many cultures, all being led towards the mysterious Hawthorne Anderson, the titular “Man in the High Castle.”
Among the most elegant books in the alt-history realm are the early works of Robert Harris, whose first big novel, Fatherland, is similar in structure to Dick’s novel and is one of his most successful. Harris postulates that Nazi Germany was able to puncture the Russian resistance in its final days -- rendering moot the old joke that you don’t launch a land war in Russia in the wintertime, General Napoleon -- and strike peace with the West. It opens in 1964 and Harris constructs within his eerie setting a proper mystery in which SS investigator Xavier March is pursuing several cases where party officials have been murdered. In fact, once you get over the unnerving dismay of Harris’s fictional world, Xavier’s investigation becomes the compelling center of Fatherland as he closes in on the long-buried answer to the "Jewish Question."
Also worth reading is Harris’s Enigma (which was turned into a much more successful film starring Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet than HBO’s condensed version of Fatherland). While the history of the war remains the same, Harris builds a very poised locked-room murder mystery within the confines of Bletchley Park, where British mathematicians fought the submarine war not with bombs and bullets but with integers and algebra.
Moving away from the fairly over-mined vein of WWII thrillers and into America’s jubilant '50s and '60s, there’s always crime afoot. Pulp fiction was born in the 1930s but by the roaring '50s, it had really come to life. While other books capture both the shine and grittiness of the times with flair, none is more ambitious than James Ellroy’s conspiracy theorist saga kicked off by American Tabloid and continued in The Cold Six Thousand. It’s less an alternative history than a shadow chronicle of the country’s most explosive decade. Its characters, all hard-boiled and with motivations as faint as smoke, touch every major event from Hoover’s control of the FBI to the violent ends of the Kennedy brothers. A trio that includes a rogue FBI agent, a hitman being manipulated by the CIA, and a Vegas cop sent to Dallas in 1963 on his own deadly mission, are all tangled in a web of lies that stretches from Cuba to Vietnam.
I’m sure there are some alternative mysteries from the 1970s but I can’t seem to dig them up just now. Any of the fine thrillers from Ludlum, Forsythe or John Le Carre will serve you just fine on the international terrorism front. My own personal favorite from back in the day is Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, a chronicle of the ’72 campaign. Now, there are those that would argue this doesn’t fit in a mystery column but let’s face it, Watergate was the crime of the decade. Just imagine reading Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men and Timothy Crouse’s great journalistic book The Boys on the Bus, followed by Hunter’s long rant, which McGovern said was the “least accurate and most truthful book about the campaign.” Now try pitching that as a thriller:
An American president on the verge of madness comes up with a desperate, psychotic plan to stay in the White House and wage his own private war. Hot on his heels are two ambitious young reporters, part of a cadre of hard-drinking political hacks all looking to bite at the heels of the powerful politico. Meanwhile, the President’s opponent, a good-hearted former teacher from South Dakota, is being aided and abetted by a brilliant but drug-addled raging madman who imagines himself both self-medicating doctor and savage journalist, determined to get to the truth. All these forces will come together in a conflagration so intense it will bring down the White House.
Aw, you’re right. No one would ever believe it. Better to stick with Jonathan Lowry’s Elvis and Nixon, a strange tale in which Elvis is presented with an official FBI Narcotics Agent Badge (cue irony). Armed with his own unique view of America, the King takes off from Graceland on a hallucinatory investigation all its hippies, narcs, burnt-out soldiers and cold-blooded hawks.
Having grown up in the eighties and nineties, I naturally missed most of them, but maybe we’ll let them be spiritually satisfied by the corporate satires of Max Barry. Barry is an Australian but his biting lampoons of corporate skullduggery have rightfully gathered a worldwide audience. His first, Syrup, does for Coca-Cola what Coupland did for software in Microserfs. His second and more satisfying book, Jennifer Government, takes us in to the future with a blisteringly cynical future vision in which employees are forced to take the last name of their corporate employers. One corporate shill, Hack ‘Nike,’ gets to see the sharp end of corporate marketing when he’s offered to chance to whack a bunch of teenagers for their sneakers, causing a subsequent media blitz and consumer flood.
After all these "alternatives," maybe it’s best to end with a more traditional contemporary thriller to represent our own day and age. I was finally able to lay my hands on a copy of Robert Ferrigno’s Prayers For the Assassin, an ambitious techno-thriller that smacks of Clancy but delivers with a subversive bent. Like the lesser alt-histories collected in sci-fi anthologies, its concept is implausible but not enough that a well-placed leap of faith won’t make it readable. Ferrigno’s book imagines an America circa 2040 in which nuclear terrorist attacks have eliminated Washington, New York and Mecca. A brutal but brief civil war has left the country divided into a number of city-states dominated by the Islamic Republic in the north and the Bible Belt in the south, each bordered by a few independent areas like the Mormon Territories and the lawless zones near Seattle.
While its setting is fascinating, its execution calls for more suspension of disbelief than is strictly necessary. A young historian (everybody’s a historian these days) is searching for the truth behind the nuclear attacks. She’s aided by an elite soldier being pursued by an ambitious assassin. Will they find the truth? Well, there’s no truth to be found because this is all made up, you see, but it’s not a bad airplane book. Ferrigno’s previous thrillers are well-executed and he’s always had a nice punk-rock edge to his writing so I’m willing to give him a swing at something different.
So that’s America, with all its guts and glory. I’ll leave you with a line from my leisure reading for the month. Despite the more deserving success of its film translations, I’ve always been fond of Mario Puzo’s Mafia soap opera, The Godfather, and have been pressed to try its post-Puzo sequel, The Godfather Returns by Mark Winegardner. Like the Young James Bond books, it’s managed to disarm my best efforts at disliking it. Just after Nick Geraci, a soldato in the Corleone family’s army, blows Tessio’s brains all over a warehouse floor, he thinks of how things might have been different.
“History is a lot of things,” he muses, “But the one thing it’s not is inevitable.”