The British appear obsessed with invasion literature, with examples ranging all the way to the 19th century. The Germans have featured prominently in these tales and ever since the rise of Hitler and World War II, a Nazi-occupied Britain has become a popular trope in alternate history. Tony Schmacher’s The Darkest Hour is the next installment in this old literary trend.
The Darkest Hour is set in 1946 London in a timeline where the Nazis defeated and occupied Britain. Details about how they did this are sparse, but it seems the point of divergence centers around a failed evacuation at Dunkirk. In this world fighting still rages on the Eastern Front (although Moscow has been captured) and relations between Germany and the United States are normalizing now that FDR is no longer president (again details are sparse, but it looks like America was never drawn into the war in Europe).
Of course, this book is not about the alternate world. The Darkest Hour is the story of John Rossett, war hero and star policeman in London. He is attached to the SS to help them round up Britain’s Jews and they hope Rossett’s reputation will give some legitimacy to their operations with the people. Rossett is a collaborator, but one with no real passion for fascism. Although his family was killed by a resistance bomb, he has no love for the Nazis either and simply does as he is told like a good copper. This ends when he is asked by a dying man to save his grandchild and suddenly Rossett realizes what a monster he has become. As he does everything to save the boy, his actions run him afoul of not just the Nazis, but also the royalist and communist factions of the resistance.
The inherent problem with these occupied Britain stories is there implausibility. Although things did seem dark in our timeline, the likelihood of the Germans actually pulling off a successful seaborne invasion of Britain, commonly known as Operation Sea Lion, were slim to nil. Modern war-gaming has tried to recreate the scenario, giving the Germans advantages like air superiority, and they still failed. The capture of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk may have been enough to bring Britain to the negotiating table, but as long as they had the Royal Navy and air superiority, they could still defend themselves from invasion.
A successful German invasion would require almost everything to go right for the Nazis. The evacuation at Dunkirk would have to fail and the Luftwaffe would need to gain air superiority. Assuming the minuscule German navy could hold off the Royal Navy long enough (perhaps with captured French ships) to establish a beachhead, they would have to move quickly to capture enough of Britain before the Royal Navy closed the channel again. Assuming Churchill doesn’t dump Britain’s entire supply of chemical weapons on the Germans as soon as they hit the beach, Hitler has to hope America doesn’t send troops to aid in the defense, which means either the Japanese didn’t attack Pearl Harbor or else Hitler didn’t declare war on the United States if they did. All these variables mean that a successful German invasion is quite implausible.
So The Darkest Hour has an implausible setting, but I always found a book can overcome that shortcoming by just being a good story (see Stirling’s Draka series). When it comes to the actual story, that is where The Darkest Hour shines. Rossett is an interesting, but flawed, character who overcomes the usual cliche of the slimy collaborator. The supporting cast is full of complex and realistic characters who all have different motivations when it comes to helping or hindering Rossett. The book is fast paced with a lot of action and back-stabbing, but it is also a sad tale so I wouldn’t recommend this book for anyone who needs a pick me up. That being said it kept me engaged the entire time and the ending left me wanting more. I’m not sure if this means a sequel is in the works, but regardless this book would work as a stand-alone novel.
The implausibility of the setting keeps The Darkest Hour from being a perfect book, but the excellent story still deserves a recommendation. There will always be a place in Anglo-American fiction for invasion literature and Schumacher’s novel is certainly a welcome addition. One last nitpick: don’t read this outside your house with the cover jacket on. A swastika features prominently on the cover and you all know what I think of publishers who use those.