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Bookends

A narrow escape

8 December 2012

9:00 AM

8 December 2012

9:00 AM

C.J. Sansom is deservedly famous for his Shardlake crime novels, featuring a 16th-century lawyer on the fringes of the court. But he has also written two successful novels with 20th-century political themes.

The first, Winter in Madrid, is a compelling evocation of Spain in 1940. His latest, Dominion (Mantle, £18.99), is set in Britain in 1952. But not the Britain we know; rather, one that made peace with Germany in 1940, with Halifax (pictured) rather than Churchill becoming prime minister, succeeded by the aged Lloyd George (an admirer of Hitler) and then Beaverbrook. By 1952 Britain has fallen increasingly under Nazi dominion, elections have been suspended and the opposition — led by Churchill, Attlee, Macmillan and Bevan — has been driven underground. London, where most of the action is set, is in the grip of the worst of the postwar pea-soup fogs and the Jews are being rounded up.

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Sansom’s story features a civil servant who joins the (illegal) Resistance. What happens makes for a thrilling read — all 593 pages of it — and Sansom also creates sympathetic characters who are more than ciphers and who have relationships we can believe in.

We can also believe, with disturbing ease, in the cultural and political scenario he offers. Halifax was thought more likely than Churchill to become prime minister, and the consequences, convincingly described here, were at least possible. It makes Dominion that rare thing, a book both exciting and thought-provoking.

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