He is best known for his historical detective series starring the Tudor hunchback, Shardlake – think Wolf Hall crossed with Inspector Morse. But with Dominion, CJ Sansom takes history by the neck and sends it flying. “What if,” he’s asking, “Germany hadn’t lost the war?”
We’ve been here before. The author has already highlighted two influences in Len Deighton’s SS-GB and Robert Harris’ Fatherland. But Sansom has a different approach and the result is a highly entertaining, thought-provoking page-turner.
His scenario is that when Chamberlain resigns as PM in 1940, Churchill is sidelined. Winston wasn’t really the favourite at the time, so perhaps it isn’t that big a stretch to imagine Lord Halifax, the senior Tory, squeezing him out. Sansom argues in a lengthy historical note at the back of the book, that had this happened Britain would have likely sued for peace and learned to live with the Nazis.
The consequences of this become clear as we flash forward to a fictional 1952, where Sansom weaves a story of resistance fighters, spies and Gestapo detectives. It hangs together, just about, and certainly kept me gripped. There’s a large cast, but it is handled well, with plenty of time taken to make you care about each character, just enough. Sansom manages another trick too: he is able to remind you why Nazis are so scary
– capturing both their deranged logic, and their cruelty – while avoiding the worst stereotypes.
He’s clearly done his research: barely a page goes by without some sort of clever twist on reality. The newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook has become a Nazi-sympathising PM, Enoch Powell is in the Indian Office, the fascist leader Oswald Mosley – who in reality spent the war in prison – in the Home Office.
As a Scot, Sansom saves some of his most vitriolic contempt for the Scottish Nationalists – having one character note how they voted against conscription at the start of WW2 – which they did, in 1939. And in his lengthy historical note he brands the SNP “dangerous... shrewd political manipulators”, an outburst that has already earned him column inches north of the border.
Actually, I thought at times the author dwelt a little too much on his re-writing of history, allowing his characters to discuss events a bit too often. But the plotting is both complex and well paced. Yes, there’s a sort of ITV drama feel – perhaps because the prose comes without F or C-words, explicit sex scenes and the violence is never overwhelming. In fact, everything is somehow quite proper, like a 1950s black and white movie. But that will only help it, deservedly, find a big audience.