Harvill Secker £16.99

HHhH, By Laurent Binet (trs by Sam Taylor)

Killing Heydrich: Why not let the facts speak for themselves?

Laurent Binet knew what he wanted to avoid when he embarked on his debut novel, which is about the assassination attempt in Prague in May 1942 of the head of the Gestapo, Reinhard Heydrich, by a Czech and a Slovak, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik. Binet was adamant that he was not going to fictionalise real events to fill in any gaps in his knowledge.

Indeed, his determination not to fall back upon his imagination becomes a recurring theme, his interjections obstructing the flow of a mesmerising true story. While making reference to other books, he often sneers at their improvisation. Yet he does the same, surmising details that he can't have known. For example: "the commissioner approached, smiling". Occasionally, he chastises himself for fabrication, but one suspects that these wrist-slaps are only intended to remove him from suspicion elsewhere. His conviction that he is superior to writers of historical fiction such as Alan Burgess, whom he demolishes bitchily, becomes jarring. And if Binet was so averse to the idea of fictionalisation, why didn't he write a non-fiction book, with references? His lack of references is a cop-out and, because of his antagonism towards others' fictional touches, his own glare noticeably: he writes that Heydrich was yellow after his injuries, but as any doctor would attest, blood loss with no gall bladder damage causes pallor, not jaundice.

The overall effect is that Binet and his thoughts and opinions loom large. He is not the first writer to do this. For example, Geoff Dyer's non-fiction is discursive and meandering and as much about his responses to a subject as about the subject itself. But Dyer is entertaining while Binet is distracting.

Still, Binet's methodology and style can't detract from the facts about the rise and demise of the man who became known as the "Hangman of Prague". Tall and fair-haired, Heydrich looked Aryan, though he was investigated for suspected Jewish blood early on in his career, because his paternal grandmother had remarried a Jew. During his rise to power, Heydrich became Himmler's invaluable underling – the title of the book comes from the wartime saying that "Himmlers hirn heisst Heydrich", or "Himmler's brain is named Heydrich". He was the head of the Gestapo, and Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, the occupied Czech section of Czechoslovakia.

Binet includes some shocking anecdotes and facts. For example, a football match that the Nazis organised in occupied Ukraine was won by Kiev – despite them being a man down (a Nazi had broken one of their legs) and the Kiev superintendent warning the team that they'd be executed if they won. Furious, the Nazis summoned professional footballers from Berlin for a rematch, but were thrashed again. The Kiev team, save for three who escaped, were executed. Near Kiev is Grandmother's Gully, a homely name for a place of terror, where, within 48 hours, 33,771 naked and beaten Jews were forced to lie in a mass grave, and were shot. In total, more than 100,000 were murdered there.

Binet's short chapters – there are no page numbers, just brisk, harrowing chapters – are conducive to his style of snappily dispensing nuggets of information in lucid prose. Despite his fussing about the nature of historical fiction, this is mesmeric stuff; history brought to chilling, potent life.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam