Sam Leith Sam Leith

Truth in fiction

The award-winning thriller writer on his new novel Munich – and why totalitarianism is in the air again

The Sunday Times’s literary editor Andrew Holgate recently tweeted the news that Robert Harris’s latest thriller had entered the bestseller list at No. 2: ‘Pipped to the post by Ken Follett.’ Harris retweeted it: ‘Well done Ken. You bastard.’

Pipped to the post only by Follett. That’s the level Harris is at now. Even before it hit the shops, his novel was being chased for film rights by two studios. Harris is one of that small and enviable group of journalists who became novelists — and made it big instantly. His first book, the alternative history story Fatherland, set in a Germany in which Hitler won the war, was bought on the basis of the idea alone and became a name-establishing bestseller.

With his new novel, Munich — set amid the 1938 appeasement crisis — Harris returns to Nazi Germany for the first time in 25 years. When we sit down together at The Spectator, I go highbrow from the off and quote Indiana Jones at him: ‘Nazis: I hate these guys.’ What made him return to the scene?

‘I’ve consciously waited 25 years to go back into that world,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to get myself typecast as a novelist of the second world war. But I’ve long hankered after writing a novel about the Munich Agreement: the moral compromises, the drama of it, more from the British perspective than the German, and that was really my way into it.’

A pleasure of Munich, for the reader, is the way that Harris inserts his fictional protagonists — the civil servant, Hugh Legat, and an old university chum called Paul Hartmann who now works as a diplomat on the German side — into the interstices of the historical record. Legat, for instance, takes the place on the flight to Munich of a historical figure, Cecil Syers: ‘He’s bumped off the flight at the last minute in favour of my man… “Terribly sorry about this,” and Syers says, “Well your German is much better than mine, it’s quite all right, old chap!” I enjoy doing that sort of thing.

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