- - Thursday, August 4, 2016



By James MacManus

St. Martin’s Press, $26.99, 406 pages

Who hasn’t wished to undo little things already done? To have muzzled that blowhard at the dinner party with a joke instead of a jab; to have bought a lottery ticket at the mom-and-pop shop that sold the actual winner; to have swerved left instead of right around the stalled bus. But to change history in a stroke? That’s a different matter, and red meat for James McManus, a tony British journalist turned historical novelist.

“Midnight in Berlin” treads familiar ground: In 1939 Adolph Hitler tightens his maniacal grip on Germany and invades one neighbor after another while diplomats dither in Paris, Prague, Washington and London. One measure of Mr. MacManus’ narrative skill is that he makes Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy seem exciting, even as it unravels — and tells the tale in pedestrian prose that barely breaks a sweat.

From chapter to chapter, one feels like the man who’s too far from the mommy pushing the stroller when the errant taxi careens around the corner. One wants to yell “Stop, Fool!” Or to wish that His Majesty’s Government had sent an ambassador as savvy as the egghead professor whom FDR named. (See Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of the Beasts.”) But, no, the British envoy is Sir Nevile Henderson, an aging Edwardian Tory and such a striped-pants toady that he serves “only fine German wines for fear that French vintages might upset his official guests.” Like many central characters in “Midnight in Berlin” Henderson really was the government’s ambassador.

As for who is historically real and who is bald invention here, a reader couldn’t care less. Because he was too engaged in the plight and quest of Col. Noel Macrae and his slippery wife Primrose; and in honey-tongued broadcaster William L. Shirer who can pry information out of a roast duck; and in Joachim Bonner, the Munich gumshoe cornered by Nazis into performing political surveillance, work he deems beneath his dignity, and in Sara, the stunning Jewess entrapped in Berlin’s finest five-star brothel where she beds VIPs before hidden cameras as the love-puppet of Reinhard Heydrich, an actual apotheosis of the Gestapo beast.

This cast of mixed characters, and their strutting and fretting down-stage-center in the curtain-raiser to World War II, must be brilliantly lit to hold its audience. Because we know too well the shadow play on the scrim behind them, and the countless banalities of Nazi evil: the persecution of gypsies, homosexuals and Jews; the screaming megalomaniac who mesmerizes German people like the hypnotic python in the Berlin Zoo with his scapegoating, xenophobia and malignant nationalism; the burning synagogues and shattered glass of Kristallnacht; the indescribable Holocaust still to come. As these elements become everyday, what surprises can a novelist pull out of his historical hat? What surprises indeed.

Consider Mr. MacManus’ protagonist, Noel Macrae. The new military attache pursues arms data like a nerd, infers the Third Reich’s engorging military muscle, and predicts the huge and tragic folly of appeasing Hitler. A decorated hero in World War I, Macrae has a certain numb heartlessness, notable in such a faceted character (but then, we learn, he was a sniper). He is in turn a cuckold, a Nazi whore’s lover, a stiff-upper-lip Scot, an insubordinate adventurer, a Tommy who consorts with Prussians.

He is also the marksman who would change the course of human events from his apartment balcony when Hitler mounts the reviewing stand nearby for a five-hour parade, an orgy of goose-stepping military exhibitionism staged to cow the civilized world. In this novel, as in history, His Majesty’s Government rightly rules out the snuffing of a head-of-state, and does so with hilariously historic hauteur, calling such a shot “unsportsmanlike.” But the author turns this historical fact on its head in a stunning stroke, his best surprise.

Mr. MacManus doesn’t winkle facts. It turns out — as this reader did not realize until closing the book — that he modeled Macrae on the real Col. Noel Mason-MacFarlane, British military attache, Berlin 1938-39, and dedicates the work in his memory. This is not a “what-if” of that great genre plied by Roth, Deighton, et al. Rather, call it an “if only” saga that leads one to wish that some of those real characters had played their cards differently in 1939, that the Sirs Neville (Henderson and Chamberlain) had given Mason-Macfarlane the nod. What a difference it might have made: Decapitated, the Nazi juggernaut might have broken into factions and eaten their own; the Prussian generals might have refused to violate Czech sovereignty; the Tory government might have held. Things could hardly have turned out worse. Maybe?

A convincing chiaroscuro thriller, it isn’t a perfect book. The prologue is a cheap teaser; the maps superfluous window-dressing; the dust jacket a kitschy pastiche. But it proves historical fiction’s superb purposes: to reflect what might have been and induce reflection on what may be. Let the reading turn back on itself and make the reader consider just how important some deeds might have been, if only they’d been done. Consider just how incendiary a ranter can become when his loud lies incite multitudes into mobs. Because words matter, deeds dictate, history happens.

• Philip Kopper, author of a revised history of the National Gallery of Art to be published this fall, writes about culture, history and the arts.

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