A heavyweight of historical fiction with a knack for creating page-turning political thrillers with literary credence, Robert Harris is best known for the ‘what if’ masterpiece Fatherland and his Cicero series as well as the controversial Blairite-era roman à clef, The Ghost.
Novels by Robert Harris
From the politics of ancient Rome to a chilling alternate history of Nazi rule, Robert Harris’s novels take the psychological thriller in ever more innovative directions.
The Cicero Series in Order
Harris’s immersive fictional trilogy charting the extraordinary life of Cicero at the centre of ancient Rome’s most turbulent historical period.
Non Fiction by Robert Harris
BiographyNow widely viewed as an influential figure amongst the great and the good of the often murky worlds of British media and politics, Robert Harris’s beginnings were far less auspicious. Born and brought up on a council estate in Nottingham, his interest in the written word started at an early age, encouraged by his parents’ love of reading and visits to the print factory where his father worked.
Harris’s background in journalism, particularly the insights he gleaned through his work for the BBC with Newsnight, and as political editor at the Observer (a position he took up when only 30), were invaluable in planting the seeds of his future fiction. Nevertheless his first books were all non-fiction, including a study of chemical warfare written with fellow journalist Jeremy Paxman and an investigation into the scandal of the Hitler Diaries, Selling Hitler.
Re-writing HistoryIt was the Second World War which provided Harris with the inspiration for his first and most famous novel, Fatherland, published in 1992. Harris has stated that he started writing fiction because he "couldn't say all he wanted to say in the non-fiction" and Fatherland, which takes as its premise the allied forces having lost the war, turned history on its head, wrapping a detective story in a chilling meditation on a dark alternative future.
An instant bestseller, Fatherland sold more than 3 million copies, reaping praise from all quarters with the Times commenting that it ‘grips as tightly as a Nazi's glove’. The novel allowed Harris to focus on writing fiction full-time, the proceeds financing his current home - still fondly known in the family as “the house that Hitler built”.
The Origins of PowerThe novels that immediately followed Fatherland, Enigma and Archangel, both embedded psychological thrillers at the heart of key moments in Twentieth-Century history. In 2003, Harris diverged from this formula to write Pompeii, positioning a taut emotional plotline against the backdrop of the days leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius. Harris went on to write another Roman novel Imperium (inspired by reading Tom Holland’s book Rubicon), the first in his ‘Cicero’ series which he followed up with Lustrum and Dictator.
An early supporter of New Labour, Harris parted ways with the party after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then caused a sensation by publishing The Ghost in 2007, a thinly veiled roman à clef of the Blair regime. Harris took a risk in publishing the novel commenting to The Guardian "The day this appears a writ might come through the door. But I would doubt it, knowing him."
Since then Harris has turned his penetrating gaze on other controversial events in contemporary history including the crash of 2010 in The Fear Index and, in Conclave, taking on the Catholic Church in a novel set over 72 hours during the election of a new pope.
Latterly Harris’s output only seems to be accelerating, the ideas coming thick and fast; he says "when I was younger, there would be long gaps between books: three years, five years. But after Pompeii … something changed, and now I really like to be starting work on a new book before the last one is out. I’m at my most contented when I am writing."
Recommended Further ReadingIf Robert Harris’s Roman series has left you hungry for more, then Robert Graves’ I, Claudius is a classic of the genre. Conn Iggulden’s ‘Emperor’ series is a lively and engaging gallop of historical-fiction, charting the rise of Julius Caesar. Harris himself recommends Tom Holland’s Rubicon as a historical companion-piece to his own fiction and Mary Beard’s SPQR is an excellent and engaging recent survey of Roman history.
Fatherland owes many of its tricks-of-the-trade to Len Deighton’s 1978 alternate history thriller SS-GB along with classic wartime espionage novels such as John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as well as Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and, more recently, C.J. Sansom’s own take on a Nazi-occupied alternate future, Dominion.
For more contemporary thrillers Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards is widely seen as an acutely pointed critique of modern politics. Widely seen as an heir to Harris in both style and background, journalist Andrew Marr’s fiction, Head of State and Children of the Master are a very contemporary take on the British political thriller.
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