Alternate history often explores the darker what-ifs of our past. A popular theme is “What if Germany won World War II?” In his book, Tidhar flips that idea on its head and asks “What if Hitler and the National Socialist Party lost the 1933 election to the Communist Party?” Sounds good, right? No Hitler. No Nazis. No racist ideologues. Not quite.
A Man Lies Dreaming is alternate history told in the style of Raymond Chandler. It’s 1939, and London has become a place of refuge for Germans (including former Nazis) escaping Communist Germany. Wolf, a former-Nazi-leader-turned-private-detective, is so hard-up for cash that he takes a case from Jewish heiress Isabella Rubenstein, whose sister was to be smuggled in from Germany weeks before. During his search for the young woman, Wolf finds himself dealing with former Nazi colleagues, human traffickers, Jewish extremist groups, and even a serial killer. This is all set against a backdrop of the rise of British Fascists and Oswald Mosley’s imminent election as Prime Minister. Mosley has risen to power on a xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic platform. Eerily reminiscent of Nazi storm troopers, his Blackshirts are terrorizing Jews and immigrants, beating them in the streets without provocation or cause. In a strange twist of fate, Wolf finds himself more closely allied with the Jewish immigrants than with the fascists who had once looked to him for inspiration.
Tidhar’s account of Wolf (a thinly disguised Hitler) is both a deeply unsettling tale of the depth of human depravity and the blackest of comedies. Wolf’s lot in life is not an easy one, and at times it is easy to find oneself empathizing with him. Readers might find it difficult to reconcile finding common ground with someone who we know perpetuated such terrible acts, but it is in this humanizing of the monster, watching him become a victim of the laws he would have enacted, that we are reminded that tyrants do not come to or hold power on their own. There is a good chance A Man Lies Dreaming will make you uncomfortable at times, but it will also make you think.