There is something irresistible about ‘what if’ historical thrillers, and World War Two has provided fertile ground for the likes of Robert Harris and, more recently CJ Sansom with the excellent Dominion. If you enjoyed either of these books then Simon Urban’s debut Plan D, set in a modern day East Germany where the Berlin Wall never fell, will be a must.
An elderly man is found hanging from a major East German-Russian pipeline in a secure sector. Suicide is swiftly ruled out by the presence of the eights knots around his neck and the shoelaces tied together; these are the hallmarks of a Stasi execution, one reserved for the worst kind of traitors. But the Stasi was overhauled years earlier and such behaviour is no longer in their make-up. Officially at least. Inspector Martin Wegener knows he isn’t really expected to find the killer. In the People’s Police Force crimes are rarely solved, only passed up the chain until they disappear into an anonymous filing cabinet, and this one seems more politically sensitive than usual, bound for bureaucratic snarl-up.
As it turns out the case is actually too politicised for a quiet cover-up. A major gas deal is in the offing, one with wide reaching ramifications for the GDR and her position within Europe and they must be seen to be making every effort, prove that the dark days are behind them. The drafting in of suave, West German detective Richard Brendel, only highlights the potential diplomatic tensions around the case, and it is a predictably bumpy ride for Weneger, who can’t help but measure himself against the man. It doesn’t help that he has the voice of his ex – read dead – partner Fruchtl offering frequent commentary on life, politics and women. Mostly Wegener’s ex – read moved on to better things – girlfriend Karolina, whose high flying and possibly rather sleazy job at the Energy Ministry throws some complications into the case, personally and professionally.
The initial murder is only a small part of Plan D. It is, of course, well handled, satisfying the needs of the genre but, being an alternative history thriller, the real pleasure for the reader comes from Urban’s flawless construction of an East Berlin which never existed, with all of its social intricacies and political machinations, grinding Communist-era economical constraints slamming against external pressures. Urban has created a densely realised world, hugely atmospheric, grim and grinding, a city dominated by crumbling relics, but with hidden oases of decadence for the wealthy few. Wegener is the city personified, crumbling himself but persisting as people with more power conspire around him, laying one betrayal over another. He isn’t instantly attractive, he’s far too noirish for that, but he’s an intriguingly flawed protagonist, one you’re more than happy to sped five hundred pages with.
Plan D is a highly accomplished debut, ambitious, complex and written with great flair. If you’re looking for a summer read which will suck you in and hold fast, this the one.