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Top Five Alternative History Novels

‘Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were’ said the late American Astronomer Carl Sagan. Which is extremely fitting for this article. Books can take you across the world, back in time and even to a place or future that never existed. These novels open the mind up to some scary possibilities, which is why they lend themselves so well to crime!

Whether they be history, fantasy or crime these novels are well worth a look. Vintage Editor Alison Hennessey was inspired after working with Simon Urban on his new novel, Plan D, to explore these books and she has given us her alternative top five:

‘Publishing Simon Urban’s clever and compelling Plan D, which is set in the present day and imagines a world in which the Berlin Wall never fell, led me to wondering what other alternative histories should be top of any reader’s wish list (right after Plan D, of course).
Here are my suggestions – with a little help from the good people on Twitter – but what I have missed out? And why do you think so many of these books take as their starting point events from the Second World War?


Fatherland by Robert Harris

Perhaps the most well known example of alternative history, Robert Harris’s 1992 thriller images what would happen if the Nazis had won the Second World War. Opening in the weeks leading up to Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday, Fatherland is a tense and dramatic read that went on to be translated into over 25 languages and made into a (perhaps best forgotten) film. It became the benchmark against which we judge so many alternative histories and if you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for?

The Plot against America by Philip Roth

In Philip Roth’s novel, FDR is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh, who quickly signs non-aggression treaties with Germany and Japan before introducing various anti-Semitic policies to America. We see the impact of this through the eyes of a 7 year old boy, himself named Philip Roth, who watches as bit by bit his family’s life starts to fall apart, from the hotel room the family book but which mysteriously becomes unavailable to the brother who is co-opted by the OAA (the Office of American Absorption) to encourage other Jewish city boys to follow his example.

Dominion by C.J. Sansom

Perhaps best known for his 16th century based Shardlake series, Sansom’s most recent novel is set in 1952 and sees him creating an alternative world where Britain, at the urging of Lord Halifax, surrendered to Germany back in 1940 and now serves as a satellite state of the Third Reich. In cold, smoggy Britain the new Prime Minister is Lord Beaverbook, with Oswald Mosley serving as his home secretary, while the British Resistance movement is led by Winston Churchill.

Watchmen by Alan Moore

First published as a 12 part miniseries in the 1980s, Alan Moore’s alternative history explores how superheroes emerged in the 1940s and 1960s to help the United States win the Vietnam War, although the country is now locked in a Cold War with Russia. Often cited as one of the most influential graphic novels of all time, Watchmen was also made into a film in 2009.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke

Leaving the twentieth century and the Third Reich far behind us, Susannah Clarke’s novel takes as its starting point the idea that magic once existed in England and has now returned to the nineteenth century with two men – the eponymous Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. In Clarke’s world the North of England is magical and romantic, and the book is often described as a blend of alternative history, fantasy and historical fiction – it won both The Times Best Novel of the Year Award and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, showing how successfully it straddled both worlds.’


A big thank you to Alison for compiling that list. What do you think? Do you have a favourite alternative history crime novel? Let us know in the comments below or join the #plandwhatif conversation on twitter!

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