Friday, 1 April 2011


Fear Itself, which is a great title, somewhat overstates the impact of this novel, whose strongest point is that it manages to capture much of the feeling of the pulp heroes of the late Thirties. Jimmy Nessheim, a German-American FBI agent, former college football star, and all-around good guy is very much in the tradition of Operator No.5 or Secret Agent X, a man of strong build, good looks, and not a whole lot of characterisation. He relies, like any good pulp hero, on his 'inner steeliness', and has a family right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. So when he finds himself engaged in infiltrating the Bund, and lands himself, inadvertently, in the middle of a political intrigue between J. Edgar Hoover and the head of his counter-intelligence, he acts more as a reflector than a protagonist himself.

This would be fine if we got more of the most interesting characters, who are the real ones: Hoover, his right-hand man Clyde Tolson, and William Stephenson, the Canadian chief of British intelligence in Washington, who is, as one might expect in a British novel, the true hero behind the story. There is even a chilling scene in which Heydrich frightens the life out of the German intelligence officer behind the book's secret plot, which turns out to be the assassination of FDR. Rosenheim has obviously done his research, and he has a firm touch when it comes to the pecadillos, both personal and political, of the FBI boss—it's a little bit of pre-war history that needs more telling.

The most interesting of the fictional characters, Harry Guttman, the counter-intelligence boss at odds with Hoover, is a Jewish outcast within the Bureau who's given a crippled wife as well as a thankless job, but who turns out to be just as two-fisted as our hero. The hidden plot, and the identity of the assassin, are not hidden particularly well, partly because the red herrings are built up too deliberately and too fully, and when Nessheim finally finds a true love, it's hard to believe he could be wrong. It might have been nice as well to get FDR slightly more on stage; he's an appealing character, and his contrast with Hoover might have been interesting. There's a prequel killing which is fairly clunky in plot terms, needing to be explained, but not very convincingly, a couple of hundred pages later, and there's the odd Anglicism, parenthetical aside, or unnecessary description (like Chicago's 'famous Loop') that pulp writers used to like because they were being paid by the word, but which slow things down. And one thing Operator No.5 could have told you, is that in a story like this, action is everything. Fear Itself is an interesting historical thriller, but not quite a compelling one.

Fear Itself by Andrew Rosenheim
Hutchinson, £14.99, ISBN 9780091796068

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