A Kill in the Morning, HHhH, and the glorious intertextuality of books

A Kill in the Morning, HHhH, and the glorious intertextuality of books

I’m going to complicate matters today by comparing two books at once: HHhH by Laurent Binet and A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin.

Reinhard Heydrich from A Kill in the Morning and HHhH review

Reinhard Heydrich

The two books have a unifying character: Reynard Heydrich. Known by his nickname, the Blond Beast, Heydrich was Himmler’s ‘very dangerous right-hand man’, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, and Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (and about as protective as a can opener). I’d never even heard of Heydrich before reading Graeme’s book. In A Kill in the Morning, Heydrich is the antagonist, an evil manipulator who ties together the main threads of the story and instigates the magnificent twist towards the end of the novel. In contrast, HHhH centres on Heydrich.  In HHhH (the Hs stand for ‘Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich’, or ‘Himmler’s Brain is called Heydrich’), Binet chronicles his fascination with the assassination attempt made on Heydrich by two Czechoslovakian partisans, whilst at the same time reimagining the path of Heydrich’s life.

A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin review

Other than this unifying character, HHhH and A Kill in the Morning would appear to have little in common. A Kill in the Morning is a spy-thriller, with a spike of sci-fi to keep things interesting. It’s set in an alternative 1955: WW2 ended in a peace treaty in 1941; Churchill is dead but Hitler is still in power; Germany and Britain are locked in a cold war. HHhH is technically an historical novel, but not as you’d recognise the genre. Binet retells the historical facts as a story for some of the time, but HHhH is also a philosophy of how to write history, a diary of an obsession and a treasure hunt. We jump between 1st, 2nd and 3rd person narrative, and between time and place, with the facts building into a kaleidoscope of facts illuminated by shafts of imagined dialogue. It’s Cubist writing.

Very different books, yes, but similarities kept jumping out at me. Writing anything based on historical fact needs research and devotion. It’s not enough to scrape the surface: you have to get inside the period, inhabit the characters. I mention intertextuality in the title of this piece partly because my enjoyment of HHhH came from having already read A Kill in the Morning. I was in a constant state of ‘Ah, right!’ as gaps were filled or places and events namechecked. But, also, historical writing is entwined with what has gone before, whether book, film or TV. Graeme’s book was born out of a love of cold war spy thrillers, and he has a constant stream of espionage-related books and DVDs arriving in the post. Binet chronicles the museums and exhibitions he has visited, and gives a critical analysis of the varying portrayals of Heydrich on the large and small screen. As he puts it, ‘It’s funny how, as soon as you take a close interest in the subject, everything seems to bring you back to it.’

HHhH by Lurent Binet Review

A Kill is the Morning is storytelling with a strong historical framework. HHhH is is history with a strong belt of storytelling. They are both compelling. They both have the impressive weight of much research and knowledge behind the pages. More, they both slip over the borderland of genres. Stephen Baxter, in his review of A Kill in the Morning, commented on the way its imagined alternative world was ‘scarily plausible’; Euan Thorneycroft, Graeme’s agent, says, ‘It’s impossible of course, but Graeme makes it seem as if it might just be true’. Binet himself says that the real life story of the assassination plan against Heydrich is ‘a story more fantastical and intense than the most improbable fiction’, and HHhH’s working title, Operation Anthropoid, which was the real name of the plot, was rejected by his publishers as being ‘too sci-fi’.

Binet makes you a real time observer of the events leading up to June 1942, partly by inventing dialogue to give breath to the dry facts. More than once he questions himself about the morality of this choice but, ‘if my dialogues can’t be based on precise, faithful, word-perfect sources, they will be invented.’ When those faithful sources disappoint, however, he puts in what he thinks would have more realistically happened alongside the truth. A Kill in the Morning drags you into the narrative by the scruff of the neck, as all good thrillers should, but it’s the underpinning voice of factual veracity that makes you believe it could all be real. Graeme calls it the ‘illusion of truth’, saying that he ‘sticks to the truth until it doesn’t work for the story. I include as much reality as I can, because the best lies are those that are closest to the truth.’ Ultimately, both books are exploring the gaps, the gaps that history has left sparsely explained, the gaps where voices cannot easily be discerned.

For Graeme, it’s ‘what if?’ A very small example: towards the end of A Kill in the Morning we join Rudolf Hess, Deputy Fuhrer of Nazi Germany, on his historical flight to Scotland. No-one really knows Hess’s motivation – people have suggested conspiracies, madness or just plain delusion – so why not imagine a possible rationale? (Hess’ fate in the alternate history of A Kill in the Morning, by the way, is chilling). Binet reports how, when asked about his book, he tended to say it was about Heydrich. There is, after all, so much historical data available about this high-flyer of the SS. But HHhH is about the partisans who targeted him, tilting against impossible odds. The book itself opens with the words, ‘Gabčik – that’s his name – really did exist.’ It’s just that nobody was following him and recording what he said. HHhH inhabits Gabčik and his fellow partisan Kubiš and succeeds in making the men live and breathe. Gaps are there to be explored.

It may be, as Binet says, that ‘fiction does not respect anything’, but the doors of fiction lead every which way, and we can cross from book to book without ever touching the ground if we like.


Here’s a question. Can one, with all honesty, review their boyfriend’s book? Well, yes. First of all, because there’s no such word as can’t. Second of all, because a writer’s response to her significant other’s work will have a pretty high benchmark as a starting off point. I was pretty nervous when I sat down to read the manuscript of A Kill in the Morning for the first time. What if I didn’t like it? What if Graeme turned out to be, well, mediocre? I tell you, if both halves of a couple are writers, they really need to respect each other’s work. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t rate A Kill in the Morning. I would be out of here.

Graeme Shimmin’s website is http://graemeshimmin.com  A Kill in the Morning is available on Amazon here. Laurent Binet doesn’t have a website, but he is on Twitter.  HHhH is available on Amazon here.

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