By Sam Bourne
Jonathan Freedland's previous fictional outings in his alter ego of Sam Bourne have been set well into the 21st century. In Pantheon, however, his newest novel, we are firmly in the fervid 1940s, in the days before America entered the Second World War.
This was when, as Freedland/Bourne reminds us, America's continuing neutrality opened up the terrifying but clear prospect that Britain would lose the fight against Nazi Germany.
The often forgotten stories of the "America Firsters", who wanted nothing more than to leave Britain and France to their fate, are revived in this novel, bound in with some dismaying tales of those who believed in eugenics and the survival of the fittest. In a melting pot of eugenicists and America Firsters, antisemitism was never very far behind.
The novel's hero, James Zennor, is in many senses damaged goods: literally and metaphorically. Once the pride of the British rowing team, when we meet him he is a not very believable Oxford academic who has never recovered from the mental and physical wounds he received fighting against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War.
A bad shoulder injury has rendered him unfit for military service in the Britain of 1940 but he does have a scarily beautiful wife, Florence, and an adorable two-year-old son, Harry.
And suddenly, without warning, Florence ups and leaves James, taking Harry with her. What follows is James's mad, wartime, translatlantic chase after his wife and child, caught up in the aforementioned lunacy of deranged right-wingers and racist theories about breeding.
I couldn't help feeling that, at some stages, Freedland was hampered by not being in the 21st century as he sought to rush his tale along. It takes James no time at all, for example, to sort out passage to America and accommodation, as he leaves Britain in hot pursuit of Florence. Just a week, in fact. Really? Long-distance calls from wartime Britain notwithstanding?
Oh, well, this is fiction, so go with the flow. But James quite definitely could do with being able to look up some of his enemies online. Instead, he relies on a series of lucky breaks and a handy ability in top surveillance, gleaned from his experience in Spain.
Pantheon is an absorbing page-turner with a dark background. But please, Jonathan, tell Sam to come back to the 21st century.