Fear Itself, By Andrew Rosenheim

A stirring successor to Forsyth
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Frederick Forsyth may have said that he wrote The Day of the Jackal purely for the money. However, he also forged a genre that is still in rude health: the planned assassination of a real-life public figure.

The latest flowering is Andrew Rosenheim's accomplished Fear Itself, set in the political world of 1930s America. The target is President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When does a heterogeneous clutch of novels form into a recognisable genre? Perhaps when critical mass is achieved thanks to a series of first-rate entries – such as Rosenheim's book. As well as being a superlative thriller, it presents a more sophisticated picture of a society and an era than Forsyth's original. Nevertheless, there is one particular trick that the older writer pulls off far more successfully.

In the late 1930s, America is flinching under the Depression (Rosenheim, an American who came to England as a Rhodes scholar, points up parallels to a struggling Britain). As Europe moves inexorably closer to bloody conflict, America is pulling up the drawbridge, reluctant to identify Germany as a potential nemesis – not least because of its millions of citizens with German ancestry.

The FBI is a tyro organisation and not yet the monolith it was to become. Jimmy Nessheim, a special agent keen to prove himself, takes on the risky assignment of infiltrating the Bund, a German-American organisation with passionately held pro-Nazi views. The Bund has an overriding agenda: to halt Roosevelt's efforts to sabotage Hitler's ruthless empire-building. Jimmy, moving closer to the heart of the powerful association, discovers those prepared to take the fight to the White House in the most direct fashion, with nothing less than the murder of FDR.

There are a host of felicities crammed into this ambitious thriller, not least the sweeping and cogent creation of an America struggling to stay free of the firestorm about to engulf the world. Both the Bund itself and the upper echelons of Washington society are forged with a dynamic that rivals such heavyweights as Gore Vidal. But Rosenheim isn't quite able to pull off the key trick that Forsyth did: orchestrate the suspense around the murder of a world leader that we know did not take place. In the context of his considerable achievement, this caveat doesn't seem important. Rosenheim's career as a writer of intelligent and nuanced thrillers looks very promising indeed.