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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dominion by C. J. Sansom

Mulholland Books, 640 pages, $28

Dominion is quite an accomplishment for British author C. J. Sansom. He is known for his Matthew Shardlake 16th-century series, which is well-done and well-received, but Dominion is not part of that series.

Dominion is a what-if story, part of a genre called alternate history. The premise is simply this: What if on May 9, 1940, at 5:00 p.m., Winston Churchill had not succeeded Neville Chamberlain as prime minister of Great Britain. What if Lord Halifax had emerged the victor instead. Great Britain had been at war with Hitler’s Germany for about a year at that point. How would that war have been affected?

In Sansom’s world Britain settled for peace with Germany, ending the war after about a year. Britain was allowed to keep its empire and Germany plays the big brother. There are advisors from and generous trade accommodations for Germany. The U.S. never had cause to intervene and, as a result, Adlai Stevenson is poised to become the next president in 1953.

And what of merry old England? By 1952, the blackshirts have become more predominant. The inexorable take-over of the British government by Nazi sympathizers has been slow but steady. British Jews finally are being rounded up to be sent away to camps. Enough time has passed that citizens are too cowed to voice dissent. The SS has a foothold in Britain and there are spies, both for and against the government. That is where David Fitzgerald comes in.

David is a minor civil servant, but he can surreptitiously gain access to secret files to pass on to the Resistance, an organization headed by Winston Churchill, a man in failing health but whose unflaggingly strong personality has held the diverse anti-government forces together. Fitzgerald was recruited by an old Oxford chum, Geoff Drax.

One day it becomes more than just about shuffling secret papers. Frank Muncaster, one of David and Geoff’s old Oxford mates, finds himself in a pickle. He’s locked up in an insane asylum for having tried to kill his brother. Before the pro-Nazi British government can realize that Frank knows a world-changing deep dark secret that the brother he tried to kill imparted to him before being thrown out a window — and is actually the reason he was thrown out the window — David and Geoff must spirit him away to keep the secret safe.

Sansom has crafted a good, old-fashioned spy thriller. Even though Dominion often holds tight to the formula for wartimes spy stories, it is still immensely enjoyable. Besides Geoff and Frank, David’s spy team has the requisite lower-class tough guy and a mysterious, pretty woman who speaks with an accent. Also, there are two wronged women: one David semi-seduces to gain access to top secret papers and one is David’s wife. Almost everyone has a tragic backstory. (For instance, David and his wife lost a young son to an accident.) Although a lot of the elements may seem familiar, Dominion is unique.

Sansom is an excellent and sophisticated storyteller. He compellingly draws portraits of people who are involved in the struggle against their own government, whether they got to that point after considerable thought or whether they simply stumbled into it. Their reasons are many, as are the dangers. Most are good, moral people with heavy burdens to bear, and Sansom is good at depicting that weight.

Kudos to Sansom for the amount of research he did to present a credible alternate history for Great Britain. At times it is scary how authentic the alternate world seems. And all it took was one moment that never was in a cabinet meeting in a room far away in time.

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