Book reviews: HHhH | Alys Always | Capital

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William Leith reviews the week’s paperbacks

HHhH by Laurent Binet

(Vintage, £8.99)

* * * *

Is this a novel about the Nazis? Or is it a memoir about a historian trying to write about the Nazis? Somehow, it’s both — and it’s brilliant. Binet, who is French, has found a way of opening up the subject, to make us really think about the Nazis. This is the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s deputy, and possibly the most horrifying Nazi of all. The title, Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, which means “Heydrich is Himmler’s brain”, partly suggests why – Heydrich was, to a significant extent, the psychopathic brains behind the Nazis’ most horrific plans. Luckily, he was so arrogant that he went around in an open-topped Mercedes.

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

(Phoenix, £7.99)

* * *

Frances is a quiet young woman – she’s a lowly sub-editor on the literary pages of a national newspaper. She sits quietly, correcting the punctuation of more ambitious people. Or so it seems. This is a creepy, cold novel in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith. It’s perfectly executed. Frances is driving along the road one evening when she notices something odd: a car has come off the road and crashed. There’s a woman inside. Frances talks to the woman, as she dies, and calls an ambulance. Later, Frances gets to know the woman’s family, very well indeed, manipulating events to suit her own needs. What, we keep wondering, is she capable of? Yes, nicely creepy.

Capital by John Lanchester

(Faber, £7.99)

* * * *

In this novel there’s an ordinary street in an ordinary part of London, and this street is the main character. It used to be a smart place for mildly prosperous Victorians, and then it slipped a bit, but now it’s doing very well indeed. It’s the sort of place you might find millionaire bankers, such as Old Harrovian Roger, or Premiership footballers, like Freddie, who is Senegalese. And then there’s Petunia, an old lady who was born in the street, and is now dying. Lanchester takes us into this street, and into these lives, in a way that is calm, detailed, and superbly engrossing – this is one of those wonderful chunky novels that will be your friend for a week.