Robert Harris, once Tony Blair’s answer to Squealer from “Animal Farm”, has spent nearly three decades as one of the acknowledged masters of the ‘intelligent thriller’. This is a strange literary subgenre, one that is defined by snobbishness as much as content. Thrillers, generally involving emotionally unavailable men and women investigating serial killers, are where the money is when it comes to the printed word; give or take trashy romance. As a result when someone like Robert Harris puts out another finely calibrated suspense machine, the intelligentsia will quantify it as ‘intelligent’ to separate it from the guilty pleasure hoi polloi. Harris writes page-turners of the kind that will have you sneaking out of business meetings, birthdays and emergency heart transplants to snatch another couple of paragraphs.
For much of his literary career, Harris has operated in the medium of historical fiction. Whether the cloak and dagger politics of An Officer and A Spy’s recreation of the Dreyfus Affair; or the literal cloaks and daggers involved in the murder of Julius Caesar in his magisterial Cicero trilogy; Harris explores the past to offer a mirror to the savage undertow of power in our present. Power is the closest thing to a consistent theme in Harris’s work and in “The Second Sleep”, his new novel, it is savagely guarded: his distant time period du jour is our own unfamiliar England, in the distant year of 1468. This is a time long removed from our current cultural concerns of climate change, Brexit and Piers Morgan. Instead starvation, plague, death by miscellaneous pointy object and the blasted French get most of the column ink (or they would if Albion wasn’t free from the evils of the printing press).
Our protagonist is Simon Fairfax, a young prelate dispatched to a remote village in the sodden county of Wessex to offer last rites to a country priest who has died in slightly odd circumstances. Unlike his recent, and frankly superior, “Conclave”, the Catholic Church here is all powerful, operating its own courts for heresy which supersede the laws of men and king. Fairfax, only 24 and possessed of ambition tempered by a tendency towards the romantic, is a representative of a power at its apogee. Initially keen to escape this backwater as soon as the burial is complete, he encounters a whiff of an odd heresy in the village and decides to lay it bare before he returns to Exeter. The truths he uncovers, however are shocking, not just for him, but also for us; as comfortably removed as we are from Fairfax’s bleak England.
“The Second Sleep” is an odd book by Harris standards, it’s very much a page turner, but it’s more poetic and meditative than anything else in his canon. Unusually for him the world he paints is far more impressionistically drawn: a charcoal sketch rather than a blueprint. Many questions (and without going into spoilerific territory, there are a great many questions indeed) are left tantalisingly unanswered. It’s the novel’s bold and elegiac ending however that seems sure to see more than a few copies lobbed through the air in frustration. It’s an enjoyable, thought provoking work, but lacks the dramatic through-line of his best novels and is somewhat predisposed to drawing characters outside of Fairfax rather thinly. Still, it’s very enjoyable to sink into Harris’s 1468, even in all the disturbing ways that it doesn’t feel all too far away at all.