From the publisher's website:
Set in the tense and uncertain years before the Second World War, when America was still largely conflicted about entering the war on either side, Andrew Rosenheim’s thriller Fear Itself offers a rich depiction of history as it was—and as it might have been. Jimmy Nessheim, a young Special Agent in the fledgling FBI, is assigned to infiltrate a new German–American organization known as the Bund. Ardently pro-Nazi, the Bund is conspiring to sabotage American efforts against Adolf Hitler. But as Nessheim’s investigation takes him into the very heart of the Bund, it becomes increasingly clear that something far more sinister is at work, something that seems to lead directly to the White House. Drawn into the center of Washington’s high society, Nessheim finds himself caught up in a web of political intrigue and secret lives. But as he moves closer to the truth, an even more lethal plot emerges, one that could rewrite history.My favorite character in this book is Jimmy's boss, Harry Guttman, a Special Agent who reports to Clyde Tolson, Associate Director of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Guttman is 44 years old, and has an invalid wife who requires a lot of care; he has a caregiver who comes in during the day but he takes care of her needs the rest of the time. He has concerns about the German American Bund group and wants to send in an undercover agent, but the mission is not approved. Nessheim is not aware that his undercover assignment is counter to Hoover's instructions.
The undercover assignment is only one part of a very complicated plot. This book begins in 1936 and covers the years up to the middle of 1940. It is set primarily in various locations in the US but occasionally in Germany or Austria. Unfortunately the complexity weighs the story down, and the pacing is uneven.
The author includes real-life figures in addition to Hoover and Tolson: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer Rutherford. I have mixed feelings about that in any book; sometimes using prominent real-life characters is distracting to me. I focus too much on those characters and how they fit in. In this case it did not bother me and the author handled it well.
I enjoyed learning more about these years in the US. I was hardly aware of the existence of the German American Bund organization. The characters in the book allow the author to address the prejudices of both US citizens and Germans at this time. Nessheim's family background is German-American; Guttman is Jewish and a Polish-American. A German double agent is homosexual and has a relationship with a black man. All of this is handled well, matter-of-factly.
In summary, this was a good book but it could have been much better. I liked all the detail about the historical period. I haven't read many books with a World War II focus set in the United States. The book gives a picture of the lack of enthusiasm for entering a war that was happening so far away. The negative aspects were the inconsistent pacing and a lack of depth in most of the characters. I liked the main characters, Guttman and Nessheim, but even so I did not find their story compelling.
In an interview at Publisher's Weekly, the author explains his themes and goals in writing the book.
It came out of an interest in the under-recognized Germanness of so much of American society; also a “what if” interest about what would have happened had FDR not run for a third term.Andrew Rosenheim grew up in the US. He went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1977 and has lived there ever since. He continued this series for two more books: The Informant (2013), aka The Little Tokyo Informant, and The Accidental Agent (2016).
Publisher: Overlook Press, 2012 (orig. publ. 2011)
Length: 420 pages
Series: Jimmy Nessheim, #1
Genre: Historical Mystery
Source: I purchased this book.