Britain in 1940. Europe is torn apart by war, but America is not persuaded that it should join the fight against the Nazis. Youthful Oxford Don James Zennor puts a promising career on hold when he finds himself beset by personal tragedy. After a rowing trip, he returns home to find that his wife has vanished along with his young son. She has left behind a note, telling him that she still loves him, but what follows for the tormented young academic is a grim search through a country in the grip of war. When James crosses the Atlantic to one of America’s most prestigious universities, he begins to discover that there are unsettling secrets to be uncovered in the gilded clubs and clandestine societies. And as James encounters some of the unpalatable thinking to be found at the very heart of the American establishment, his hunt for his family begins to seem — perhaps — less important than the fate of two continents.
Sam Bourne is, in fact, the journalist Jonathan Freedland, whose columns in the pages of the Guardian demonstrate that he is a believer in Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum that one should be able to entertain two diametrically opposing views. That dialectical position held by Freedland the pundit has ensured that his columns are among the most stimulating in current political journalism, often demonstrating that every argument is prismatic, with no one clear ideology providing all the answers. But does the writer in his ‘Sam Bourne’ persona show less readiness to accept different shades of the truth?
In the oak-panelled rooms of Yale University, Bourne’s hero Zennor is to discover the disturbing truth behind why a group of families has been transferred from Oxford to the US and Yale, and it isn’t long before he is encountering passionate advocates of the theory of eugenics — notions of perfecting the race seriously entertained by such 20th-century intellectuals as Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf. Freedland has talked of ‘naming and shaming’ these writers – already a fait accompli, in fact. In The Pantheon, eugenics is simply identified as an evil doctrine of Nazism, and an argument might certainly be made for that point of view — but not, perhaps, by as subtle a writer as Freedland/Bourne (who, one feels, would not be prepared to accept the simple identification of Nietzsche as the Nazi’s house philosopher, and who might examine these writers’ very different positions on the issue more rigorously).
This, though, is a thriller, after all — and the author has shown in such books as The Righteous Men what a dynamic practitioner he is in that field. But it is Freedland’s own views on his subject laid out in a chapter at the end of the book which may prompt readers to think that he is being rather too simply dismissive of several great writers.
Such thorny issues aside, however, as an atmospheric, intelligent thriller with vividly-drawn wartime atmosphere, Pantheon delivers handsomely.
Pantheon by Sam Bourne / HarperCollins, £12.99