Harris, Robert 1957- (Robert Dennis Harris)
Harris, Robert 1957- (Robert Dennis Harris)
Born March 7, 1957, in Nottingham, England; son of Dennis Harris (a printer) and Audrey Harris; married Gillian Hornby (a journalist), 1988; children: Holly Miranda, Charlie Robert Nicholas, Matilda Felicity, Samuel Orlando Hornby. Education: Selwyn College, Cambridge, B.A. (with honors), 1978. Politics: "Supporter of the British Labour Party." Hobbies and other interests: Reading history, walking, fishing, listening to music.
Home—Berkshire, England. Office—The Old Vicarage, Kintbury, Berkshire R915 OTR, England. Agent—PFD, Drury House, 34-43 Russell St., London WC2B 5HA, England.
Writer. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC-TV), London, England, researcher and film director for Tonight, Nationwide, and Panorama, 1978-81, reporter for Newsnight, 1981-85, and for Panorama, 1985-87; Observer, London, England, political editor, 1987-89; Thames TV, London, England, political reporter for This Week, 1988-89; Sunday Times, London, England, political columnist, 1989-92.
Columnist of the Year, British Press Awards, 2003.
(With Jeremy Paxman) A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret Story of Gas and Germ Warfare, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1982, published as A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret Story of Chemical and Biological Warfare, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1982, reprinted under original title, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
Gotcha! The Media, the Government, and the Falklands Crisis, Faber & Faber (London, England), 1983.
The Making of Neil Kinnock, Faber & Faber (London, England), 1984.
Selling Hitler, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1986.
Good and Faithful Servant: The Unauthorized Biography of Bernard Ingham, Faber & Faber (London, England), 1990.
Fatherland, Random House (New York, NY), 1992.
Enigma, Random House (New York, NY), 1995.
Archangel, Hutchinson (London, England), 1998, Jove Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Pompeii, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
Imperium, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2006.
The Ghost, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2007.
Harris's work has been translated into several languages.
Fatherland was adapted as a TV movie for Home Box Office (HBO). Archangel has been adapted for audio cassette. Enigma was adapted as a film in 2001.
Robert Harris had written several books of nonfiction during the 1980s before the publication of his popular 1992 novel Fatherland. Constructed around the premise that Adolf Hitler led the Nazis to victory in World War II, with Germany defeating both Great Britain and the Soviet Union and fighting the United States to an uneasy deadlock, Fatherland became a best seller, selling three million copies worldwide. Several of Harris's previous nonfiction works, such as A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret Story of Chemical and Biological Warfare and Gotcha! The Media, the Government, and the Falklands Crisis, also deal with war and its repercussions. In Selling Hitler Harris details the 1983 hoax in which a counterfeiter claimed to have discovered the diaries of the dead Nazi leader.
A true account of the Hitler diary hoax, Selling Hitler reveals the extent to which greed influenced the publishing industry to overlook the veracity of the (supposedly) newly discovered diaries in favor of their market-ability. "One merit of Robert Harris's thorough and mordantly funny account of the diaries scandal in Selling Hitler is that he lets no one off the hook," commented New York Times Book Review critic James Markham. The diaries were originally obtained by a reporter for the German magazine Stern; according to Jonathan Alter in Newsweek, "Executives at Stern's parent company, Gruner and Jahr, smelled money. Not wanting to see the bubble burst, Stern subjected the papers to only the most cursory handwriting examination." Markham noted in the New York Times Book Review that Harris presents "an unsettling portrait of the press baron, Rupert Murdoch, who aggressively bought up rights to the diaries for his corporation … and then nonchalantly dismissed their fraudulence with an unhappily memorable one-liner: ‘After all, we are in the entertainment business.’" New Statesman reviewer Paul Hallam wrote that Harris tells this "sick saga … with skill and wit."
The first of Harris's novels, Fatherland, unfolds in docudrama style. The setting is 1964, on the eve of an important visit by the president of the United States, Joseph P. Kennedy, to the German fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, in a Berlin that is now the site of the grandiose Great Hall (built to the specifications of Nazi architect Albert Speer, the building can accommodate 180,000 people). The Allies have lost World War II, the wartime British prime minister, Winston Churchill, is in exile in Canada, and Germany now controls all of Europe and a good part of the Soviet Union. Against this background a German police detective, Xavier March, investigates the murder of a Nazi party official and in the course of his probe unearths a terrible secret with wide-ranging implications. Pursued by the Gestapo, March attempts to publicize a crime of immeasurable dimensions—the systematic murder of millions of European Jews, whom the world believes to have been nonviolently relocated to the East. "March's inquiries jeopardize the crowning achievement of Hitler's three decades in office: world peace," commented Mark Horowitz in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Coming at a time when the American president is making overtures to end the cold war with Germany, "revelations of a Holocaust would make appeasement impossible," Horowitz explained.
New York Times Book Review critic Newgate Callendar wrote that Fatherland is an "absorbing, expertly written novel…. [It] is a bleak book. But what concerns the author is the indestructibility of the human spirit, as exemplified by Xavier March." In Time, John Skow stated that Harris's "brooding, brown-and-black setting of a victorious Nazi regime is believable and troubling, the stuff of long nights of little sleep." And in the Los Angeles Times Book Review Horowitz remarked that "Fatherland works fine as a sly and scary page-turner."
Harris followed Fatherland with his second novel, Enigma. Like its predecessor, Enigma is a World War II thriller, this time set in a secret code-breaking headquarters in England. At the height of the war, brilliant-but-inexperienced researcher Thomas Jericho has managed to crack a Nazi code nicknamed Shark—but the marathon effort has led to his nervous breakdown. Before his recovery is complete, however, Jericho is called back to work on an even tougher Nazi code: Enigma, which is generated on new four-rotor encrypting machines. With a battalion of American warships about to lock horns with German U-boats, it is vital that the code be cracked in time to ensure an Allied victory. Complications further ensue when Jericho suspects his new love, Claire Romilly, of being a spy.
"The second novel is always the most difficult, especially after a big hit," wrote Clive Ponting in New Statesman & Society. The critic acknowledged Harris's sophomore effort as an "ultimately … formulaic thriller whose location cannot disguise its rather ordinary plot," though Ponting added that the author does provide "a good pace." John Skow in Time found more to like in Enigma, saying that the results of Harris's efforts to portray genius are "worthy and believable, if not luminous." And to a Publishers Weekly contributor, the novel is "a rare mix of cerebral and visceral thrills that features risky exploits complementing the exhilarating challenge [of] solving daunting puzzles within puzzles." Apart from being an international best seller, Enigma was the subject of a BBC documentary on the making of a thriller.
The author is "at his best," wrote Skow, in his third novel, Archangel. In the "what-if" tradition of Fatherland, Archangel takes on modern Russian history, exploring the implications of a pro-Stalinist cult that discovers the long-lost son of the late dictator and seeks to bring the scion to power. Such a premise powers the novel's theme: "Scratch the surface of post-Soviet Russia," commented New Statesman contributor Kate Saunders, "and you will find unreconstructed, bloody-minded old commies." While this over-the-top plot could be the stuff of potboilers, Harris "makes you believe it as it's happening," in the words of New York Times writer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. To Michael Specter, contributor to the New York Times Book Review, the author "has given those of us who retain some literary nostalgia for the Evil Empire exactly what we have been waiting for." "Building on accurate historical sense," noted Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor, Harris describes would-be historical events compellingly enough to "[reward] readers with a thoroughly thrilling tale."
Harris's 2003 novel, Pompeii, spins a new twist on an old tale. According to a reviewer for the Economist, "Mr. Harris sticks to the Enigma formula of placing fictional characters … into an authentic setting." The book takes place in A.D. 79 in the Roman Empire two days before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The fictional protagonist, civil engineer Marcus Attilus Primus, is elected to investigate the water supply blockage to the aqueduct along the Bay of Naples. His findings lead him to believe bigger problems may be on the horizon, and with the approval of his admiral, Attilus sails to Pompeii to get to the root of the problem, which lies at the base of Mount Vesuvius. Although readers are familiar with the tragic ending of this familiar tale, "the events are handled with a skill that kept me turning the pages," Jasper Griffin wrote in the Spectator. He concluded that "Harris has done his homework" in depicting the "picture of life" during ancient Rome. The Economist reviewer called Pompeii "an engaging thriller with no small lesson for our own times."
In a return to Ancient Rome following the success of Pompeii, Harris offers readers the first title in a new Roman trilogy. Imperium is narrated by Tiro, slave to the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, and ostensibly the inventor of shorthand, due to the necessity of dutifully recording everything that happened to Cicero, both as a statesman in public and over the course of his private life. Tiro looks back on Cicero's life and his experiences with the orator from the advanced age of ninety, at which point he decides he will write a biography of the statesman based on the records he has maintained. Janet Julian, in a review for Kliatt, commented that "Harris's book reads like an adventure story, complete with pirate attacks and dirty politics," concluding the result is "altogether a stellar performance." Susanne Bardelson, reviewing for School Library Journal, remarked that "the author paints a vivid picture of everyday life, and the courtroom dramas are, at times, riveting." According to Booklist contributor Margaret Flanagan: "Harris spins a crackling good yarn, made all the more powerful by the fact that it is thoroughly grounded in history." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly was of a similar opinion, stating that "Harris's description of Rome's labyrinthine, and sometimes deadly, political scene is fascinating and instructive."
Taking a break from his Roman theme, Harris's next novel, The Ghost, is a thinly veiled criticism of former British prime minister Tony Blair, a man whom Harris once considered a friend but with whom he suffered a fairly public falling out, both over the firing of Harris's best friend and the outright cooperation with U.S. president George W. Bush regarding the war in Iraq and foreign policy in general, which flew in the face of Harris's firm antiwar beliefs. The book tells the story of a British prime minister who seems to make all of his decisions based on what would best assist the United States, rather than looking to his own country's interests. A second featured character is serving as a ghostwriter for the prime minister as he attempts to put together his memoirs. The ghostwriter is the second person in for the job, following the death of the first one, and rumors as to that individual's demise are running rampant, creating a mystery within the novel that holds up separately from the barely concealed facts of the situation. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews found the book "very slick, rather tense, sophisticated, and amusing." Jonathan Freedland, in a contribution for the New York Times Book Review, wrote: "The plot is unfussy and perhaps too linear for those thriller readers fond of pyrotechnics, but it unfolds with clarity and panache—and with a classy twist on the very last page." He concludes, however, that the ending of the novel "works as a thriller, but it reduces somewhat the novel's power as a political critique."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, September 15, 1995, Gilbert Taylor, review of Enigma, p. 142; November 1, 1998, Gilbert Taylor, review of Archangel, p. 451; October 15, 2003, Kristine Huntley, review of Pompeii, p. 390; September 15, 2006, Margaret Flanagan, review of Imperium, p. 27.
Books, autumn, 1999, review of Archangel, p. 20.
Bookseller, May 23, 2003, "Death of a Boom Town: Robert Harris Explores the Final Hours of Pompeii," p. 30.
Economist (US), November 28, 1998, review of Archangel, p. 89; September 6, 2003, review of Pompeii, p. 76.
Entertainment Weekly, October 20, 1995, Michael Giltz, review of Enigma, p. 58; February 5, 1999, review of Archangel, p. 64; November 21, 2003, Jennifer Reese, "Blast from the Past: Robert Harris's Pompeii Vividly Imagines the Two Days before the Vesuvius Blew Its Top," p. 88.
Europe, March, 2000, Robert Guttman, review of Archangel, p. 36.
Guardian (London, England), September 5, 1995, Roy Ackerman, "First among Sequels," p. 12.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1995, review of Enigma, p. 1130; November 1, 1998, review of Archangel, p. 1552; September 15, 2003, review of Pompeii, p. 1145; September 15, 2007, review of The Ghost.
Kliatt, September, 2007, Janet Julian, review of Imperium, p. 44.
Library Journal, October 1, 1995, Dawn Anderson, review of Enigma, p. 119; January, 1999, Roland Person, review of Archangel, p. 150; October 15, 2003, Jane Baird, review of Pompeii, p. 98.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 5, 1992, Mark Horowitz, review of Fatherland, pp. 2, 9; February 1, 1999, review of Archangel, p. 9.
National Review, February 22, 1999, review of Archangel, p. 51.
New Statesman, May 1, 1987, Paul Hallam, review of Selling Hitler; October 16, 1998, Kate Saunders, review of Archangel, p. 57.
New Statesman & Society, September 1, 1995, Clive Ponting, review of Enigma, p. 33; September 15, 2003, Philip Kerr, review of Pompeii, p. 48.
Newsweek, May 26, 1986, Jonathan Alter, review of Selling Hitler, p. 70; February 1, 1999, review of Archangel, p. 66.
New York Times, October 11, 1995, Alan Riding, "An Enigma Wrapped in a Mystery," p. C17; January 21, 1999, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Archangel, p. E9.
New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1986, James Markham, review of Selling Hitler, June 28, 1992, Newgate Callendar, review of Fatherland, pp. 11-12; p. 28; October 22, 1995, Peter Vansittart, review of Enigma, p. 46; February 14, 1999, Michael Specter, review of Archangel, p. 10; November 4, 2007, Jonathan Freedland, "Yes, Minister," p. 25.
Observer (London, England), June 9, 1996, review of Enigma, p. 16; September 27, 1998, review of Archangel, p. 14; October 3, 1999, review of Archangel, p. 16.
People, October 30, 1995, J.D. Reed, review of Enigma, p. 42.
Publishers Weekly, September 11, 1995, review of Enigma, p. 74; November 30, 1998, review of Archangel, p. 49; October 27, 2003, review of Pompeii, p. 45.
School Library Journal, June, 1996, Carol Beall, review of Enigma, p. 168.
Spectator, August 26, 1995, Kingsley Amis, review of Enigma, p. 26; September 26, 1998, Douglas Hurd, review of Archangel, p. 45; November 21, 1998, review of Archangel, p. 43; November 28, 1999, review of Archangel, p. 46; October 4, 2003, Jasper Griffin, "Fire from Heaven," p. 53; December, 2006, Susanne Bardelson, review of Imperium, p. 172.
Sunday Times (London, England), September 13, 1998, Norman Stone, "Stalin and Me, a Bit of a Thriller," p. N4.
Time, July 6, 1992, John Skow, review of Fatherland, pp. 75-76; October 23, 1995, John Skow, review of Enigma, p. 102; February 15, 1999, John Skow, review of Archangel, p. 80.
Times Educational Supplement, July 19, 1996, review of Enigma, p. R6.
Times Literary Supplement, September 22, 1995, Keith Jeffrey, review of Enigma, p. 22; September 25, 1998, Richard Overy, review of Archangel, p. 21.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), November 19, 1995, review of Enigma, p. 6.
Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1999, review of Archangel, p. 131.
Washington Post Book World, October 15, 1995, review of Enigma, p. 4.