Sunday, March 19, 2017

Fear Itself: Andrew Rosenheim


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).


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Publisher:   Overlook Press, 2012 (orig. publ. 2011)
Length:       420 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Jimmy Nessheim, #1
Setting:      US
Genre:       Historical Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.


11 comments:

  1. Sounds an interesting plot which appeals. Out of curiosity, because I don't need this book - is it long?

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    1. Col, I realized late last night that I had not included the usual book information at the end. Have fixed that now. Total number of pages in the hardback edition was 420, so not horribly long but not my preferred length.

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  2. This does sound interesting, Tracy. I like books in which I can learn about something (in this case, history) as well as read a good story. It sounds as though that's what this book does.

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    1. I like to learn new things, too, Margot. I was chagrined to realize how little of the details of US involvement in the war I know.

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  3. THanks Tracy, always enjoy hearing about new titles though this does seem to follow a fairly tried and tested formula :)

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    1. I do know what you mean, Sergio. I liked the focus on German-Americans and most WWII books I have read are set in the UK or other European countries, so that was new. This was sort of an impulse buy when it first came out and I did not want to give up on it.

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  4. It's funny - I think I am very specific in my likes, and the setting doesn't appeal, even though many wartime books would.

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    1. The hero spends some time in San Francisco, some in New York, and then in Washington, D.C. All of it was interesting but maybe it suffered from being too drawn out and too many characters to remember. If book two serendipitously shows up a the sale or a used book shop I would like to follow up on some of the characters.

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  5. Tracy, the premise of this novel is interesting. I don't know a lot about America in the years leading up to its involvement in WW2. I believe America was reluctant to enter the war for various reasons, including pro-Nazi sentiments within the polity and the intelligentsia.

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    1. That is what I liked about this book, Prashant. The emphasis on the reluctance of the US to get involved in the war, which I can understand but in hindsight seems so selfish. I am horrified to think of people anywhere supporting the Germans and their offenses against many ethnic groups, but they did have support in both the US and Europe.

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  6. Thanks for linking with the war challenge

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