Alternate history can be so interesting because there are so many major decision points in history where, if things had gone a different way, the world could have changed drastically. Alan Glenn's latest novel, Amerikan Eagle, takes its turning point in history from the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, shortly after his election to the Presidency. In this reality, the assassination succeeded. The eventual result is a totalitarian state that rivals Nazi Germany, a United States that stays out of World War II, and a place where the Great Depression never ended. Unfortunately, while the concept is intriguing, the execution is lacking.
In 1943, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is becoming a hot spot for events that may change the world. Sam Miller is the newly appointed Inspector (there's only one in the city) whose first case is the body of a man dumped on the railroad tracks with a number tattooed on his wrists. Sam's just a man trying to look out for his family, but the events sparked by this discovery will change his life forever, revealing family secrets that will shock him and thrusting him into the dark underside of the world that President Huey Long has created.
There is much to like about Amerikan Eagle, though too much of some aspects actually brings the novel down occasionally. Glenn does an excellent job of drenching the reader in the oppressive atmosphere instilled by Long and his "Long's Legionnaires," and the fact that people can disappear in the middle of the night for expressing a negative opinion of Long or the U.S. government. The tone of the book is very dark.
Almost too dark, and it grows a little boring after a while. Even dark and depressing books should be enjoyable to read, but at times the atmosphere gets in the way of that. Glenn spends so much time giving the reader atmosphere that the story tends to plod along. Too many times Miller is given a moral choice, and he makes the decision to go with the flow and maintain stability, not wanting to risk his family by actually doing the right thing. While it's important to establish Miller's mindset, given how the novel ends, I think Glenn went overboard.
I didn't care for the ending, which I won’t spoil here. After a lead-up of 500+ pages of Sam taking the cowardly way out of tough moral situations, the end of the novel seems very anticlimactic. I do have to admit that Glenn kept me on my toes, however. As events spiral to their conclusion, I kept thinking that one thing would happen and Glenn would throw a curveball, though that could be because I hadn't envisioned as annoying a conclusion as I received.
One other mild irritation is a continuity problem. The Gestapo agent, Groebke, is introduced as not speaking very good English. In subsequent appearances in the book, he speaks excellent English (with the occasional slang term that he doesn't know), and nobody seems to notice the discrepancy.
The book does move at a brisk pace when Glenn isn't trying to immerse you in the setting. It kept me gripped at times, wanting to see what happens next. Miller is an interesting character, though a bit of a whiner. The characters that inhabit Portsmouth are well-drawn, and I liked the dichotomy between the "State" party and the "Federal" party, both factions of Long's Democrats, which is essentially the only party in the United States now. Sam is drawn into this controversy as both sides want him to spy on the other for them.
Even the bad guys, or at least the "mostly bad" guys, think they are doing the right thing. When Miller discovers some of the horrors being kept under wraps, they are actually justified by saying that the alternative would be even worse. As readers, we know that an extreme evil is not tolerable even if it replaces one that's even more extreme, but the villains doing it for what they believe are altruistic reasons fleshes them out as characters.
Ultimately, Amerikan Eagle is a good read, but not a great one. Like my love for some of Harry Turtledove's World War II alternate histories (despite the fact that the writing annoys me), I enjoyed reading this book despite its flaws. Where alternate history is concerned, I'm a big fan of the concept of a novel even if I don't necessarily enjoy the story itself. This is one of those times. Glenn has come up with something really interesting, and it's a good read for fans of the genre.