The Counterfeit Candidate by Brian Klein

Once in a blue moon you come across a novel that is deserving of the title ‘an instant classic’. New alternative history thriller The Counterfeit Candidate by Top Gear director Brian Klein warrants that description, with a tour-de-force cinematic page-turner that brings everything to the table besides the popcorn you’ll be munching down as you read it.

Last year’s Covid lockdown led to many aspiring authors finally taking the plunge and completing that long-planned novel they’d had floating around their minds.

This is exactly the case for Brian Klein, the BAFTA Award-winning director of television shows such as Top Gear and Sky Max’s A League of Their Own Road Trip. Faced with an empty calendar for the first time in his career, he got cracking on a story he’d first conceived some 40 years before.

After 12 weeks of intense writing, the novel—The Counterfeit Candidate—was finished. Skip forward a year and it’s no exaggeration to say that it has been more than worth the long wait. Simply put, you won’t be able to put this book down.

Every great novel, like every great car, needs a powerful motor propelling it forward and that’s certainly the case here, with a delicious alternative history ‘What If …’ scenario under the bonnet.

One of the enduring conspiracy theories of the 20th century is whether Adolf Hitler actually survived the end of the Second World War and that killer hook forms the starting point for The Counterfeit Candidate.

As we learn early on in the novel, Hitler and his wife Eva Braun manage to flee to South America in 1945, with the help of his personal secretary, Martin Bormann, rather than take their own lives in a Berlin bunker.

With new identities, they take root and hatch a multi-generation plan to bring about the Fourth Reich.

Starting a family to ensure the continuity of the bloodline, they invest millions from their Nazi spoils to fund a pharma company—the Franklin Pharmaceutical Corporation in Buenos Aires—that will generate legal wealth, power and influence over the coming decades.

We see them interact with infamous Nazi war criminals Eichmann and Mengele, who were known—and this is historically accurate—to have fled to Argentina after the war under the protection of Argentine leaders Juan and Eva Peron. 

We also follow the grooming of Hitler’s son and grandson, Richard and John Franklin, who are both a chip off the old block when it comes to murderous ambitious and moral depravity.

Political thriller The Counterfeit Candidate by Brian Klein is utterly unmissable.

This novel is not, however, purely a historical novel, as the majority of the storyline takes place in 2012, focused on Chief Inspector Nicholas Vargas of the Buenos Aires Police Department, who is tasked with investigating a sensational robbery of money and sensitive documents from the vaults of a Buenos Aires bank.

As the plot unfolds it transpires that one of those who has been affected by the deposit box raid is none other than Hitler’s secret son, Richard Franklin, now CEO of the pharmaceutical company.

It couldn’t come at a worse time as Richard’s son, John George Franklin, is the Republican presidential candidate and clear favourite to become the next incumbent of the White House, promising to bring Hitler’s plan to final fruition.

The Franklins send out their heavies, a crack team of ‘finders’, to recover the missing documents—which expose Hitler and their connection to him—while Vargas and his sidekick, Lieutenant Troy Hembury of the Los Angeles Police Department, hunt the crooks and all the stolen goods, not knowing they are pursuing a ticking time bomb.

In plot terms, here we are presented with three juggernauts—completed by the bank raiders themselves—heading towards a three-way collision of major proportions, and one we get to see played out in spectacular fashion.

The Counterfeit Candidate is no lightweight, coming in at almost 400 pages, but its fast-paced and gripping narrative never steps off the gas, becoming increasingly pressurised and darker as bodies start to mount up in this race to locate the Hitler files.

Packed with more twists and turns than the most dangerous roads in the world, the story continually ramps up the urgency as we head to a thrilling finale between the cops and their adversaries.

Since its release this summer, The Counterfeit Candidate has been generating extensive praise from both critics and readers alike, and as soon as you sit down with the book you can understand why.

It’s a rip-roaring instant classic, and is all the more exceptional for being a debut novel.

Told between two timeframes—Hitler’s life and the present day—it is filled with moments of dramatic tension that thriller junkies will adore.

These range from Hitler’s dare-devil escape from battle-scared Germany across the sea to Argentina in the 1940s to the terror that the senior Franklin experiences when he gets a cold call from Vargas, who is closing in fast on the explosive truth.

This, of course, wouldn’t be possible if Klein doesn’t make his characters believable. Each receives the right amount of shading for us to invest in, with back stories to explain their driving forces.

The Franklins are gloriously despicable, intent on securing what they see as their birth right, while the detectives are both professionally and personally determined to deliver justice, even when it begins to dawn on them just what they have become involved in.

In fact, the uncovering of the Nazi plot only spurs Vargas on, as his dead wife had been Jewish and her grandfather had been one of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who been forced to flee Nazi Germany.

Brian Klein, pictured here with Jeremy Clarkson, is a revered BAFTA-winning TV director who has also proved himself to be a first-class thriller author.

At its heart, The Counterfeit Candidate is an adventure through and through, but is told in a very technically impressive way. Not only do we have the two time periods at play, but also multiple points of view to provide a complete overview of what’s happening.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that this never becomes confusing or convoluted. Every chapter and every scene is mapped out with ruthless efficiency to enhance the experience.

Typically, you just wouldn’t expect this level of sophistication from a first-time author but with Klein it must be the case that his decades behind the camera, delivering week upon week of much-watch TV, have brought him armed and ready to the publishing world.

It all seems so visual, so big and cinematic, that you can almost see the story played out in your head as you read, thanks in no small part to colourful, impactful dialogue that springs off the pages, such as the following:

Vargas cut in. “The gang-killing theory is total shit. This case involves a level of criminal power and ruthlessness that’s off the scale. What started as an audacious but pretty regular robbery has morphed into a catalogue of torture and murder, the like of which I’ve never experienced before.”

Combine the thrilling sense of jeopardy, the high stakes, and the glamorous settings of Argentina and LA, and you can easily appreciate that this novel is ripe for big-screen adaptation.

And when this comes—and it will—you’ll be queuing up to watch it, just to get the same buzz you will receive when you read the novel.

So, in summing up, The Counterfeit Candidate is a clever interplay between history, competing ideals and imagination that, for once, lives up to all the hype.

The author’s former Top Gear colleague, presenter Jeremy Clarkson, describes it as “brilliant” and he’s bang on.

This thrilling debut novel instantly catapults author Brian Klein into Britain’s literary elite.

The Counterfeit Candidate by Brian Klein is published by Spirit Entertainment and is out on Amazon, priced £8.99 in paperback, £6.19 as an eBook, and £20.03 as an audiobook. For more information, visit www.brianklein.tv.

INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN KLEIN

TV director Brian Klein tells us why the Covid lockdown is to thank for his new novel, The Counterfeit Candidate,  seeing the light of day, why all those years of reading thrillers has finally paid off, and gives us an exclusive sneak peek into the sequel.

Q. The Counterfeit Candidate has been widely praised, generating hundreds of five-star reviews. Given that you never had any desire to become an author, how does this make you feel? 

A. I’ve been totally overwhelmed by the hundreds of five-star reviews on Amazon, and the wonderful reviews the book has received from critics and bloggers alike. It’s a massive surprise to me just how well the book has been received and it’s incredibly rewarding to hear every day from new readers who love the book and tell me they feel bereft once they have finished it. I didn’t see this reaction coming. It is really exciting and rewarding, and has helped inspire me to begin work on a sequel, which my publisher and many of my readers have asked for.

Q. You are a big fan of thrillers. Which novels/authors in the genre have been your biggest inspirations for your debut novel, and why?

A. For the last 30 years I have only read thrillers and my go-to authors are Robert Ludlum, David Baldacci, Dan Brown, Fredrick Forsyth and Robert Harris. Harris’ Fatherland is one of my all-time favourite thrillers and, like The Counterfeit Candidate, it paints an alternate version of history. Forsyth’s Day Of the Jackal is a classic ‘What If …’ novel ,as of course is The Counterfeit Candidate.

Q. What inspired the idea for The Counterfeit Candidate?

A. It first began to form in my mind while I was at London University, studying Modern History and Politics. The fact the Führer, unlike many other senior Nazis, didn’t take advantage of the obvious escape route to South America but, instead, opted to take his own life had always struck me as highly suspicious. I read about Russian leader Josef Stalin’s meeting with Churchill and Roosevelt at Potsdam in 1945, shortly after the end of World War Two (which is  referenced in the prologue to The Counterfeit Candidate), where  Stalin stated that he believed that Hitler had actually escaped from Berlin and had gone on the run, either in Spain or Argentina.  This led me to think about the ‘What If …’ scenario where Hitler had fled with his wife, Eva Braun, to Argentina and they had settled down in Patagonia to start a family. I speculated on how this alternative course of events might have impacted upon the present, and I formulated an idea that Hitler’s grandson could have been groomed from birth to, one day, become the President of the United States of America. With this concept in place I appreciated that, it being a thriller, I would need to generate a sense of jeopardy, and that’s why I devised the idea of the bank robbery taking place at the safe depository. So the three elements of Hitler’s survival and escape, the foundation of a family line, and the audacious bank robbery which leads to the thieves accidently taking a box containing documents revealing the truth about Hitler’s secret existence, all combined to become the backdrop to a gripping story.

Q. Given the praise your debut novel has received, what would you say the secret is to writing effective thriller fiction?

A. Gosh! That’s a really difficult question to answer. I feel there are a number of factors that combine to create a brilliant thriller. Firstly, and most importantly, I think you need a great story—a narrative that will constantly keep the reader guessing as to what comes next.

Short, pacey chapters always ending with a cliff hanger, forcing the reader to keep turning the page,  is another vital element. I visualise a man on holiday, reading my book in bed and promising his wife he will only read one more chapter, but then he is forced to keep going.

Finally, a great thriller must have plenty of unexpected twists which take the reader by surprise and leave them constantly guessing as to what comes next !

Q. The novel has an open ending that is screaming out for a sequel. What can you tell us about the follow-up to The Counterfeit Candidate?

A. It’s very early days but I have started work on a sequel to The Counterfeit Candidate. I can’t give away the plot but I can say the story is set in 2020 in the middle of the Covid pandemic. The opening scene features an international Zoom call.

Here for the first time in print is an exclusive short taster.

Chapter 1

5th April 2020

Buenos Aires, London, New York, Sydney

The global zoom call was drawing to an end. It was no different to thousands of others that were taking place across the world at the same time, except the encrypted passcodes required to gain entry were impenetrable. The participants were based in four continents, with varying time zones and the call had been scheduled to start at 23.00 GMT. Despite the different nationalities of the participants, they were all fluent in a second language; German. The call lasted just under an hour and the meeting host brought it to an end with a chilling declaration.

“The pandemic is a gift. Plans must be brought forward. In the name of our grandfather, we mustn’t squander the opportunities it brings.”

In addition to being Top Gear’s longest-serving director, Brian Klein also directs Sky Max’s biggest entertainment show, A League of Their Own Road Trip. Here, he is pictured with one of its presenters, former Premier League footballer Jamie Redknapp.

Q. The genesis of your debut novel is connected with the world going into lockdown in March 2020. Can you tell us more?

A. I can honestly say that without the first lockdown in March, 2020, The Counterfeit Candidate would never have been written. The basic idea for the book had been buried inside my head for over 30 years but I’d never been brave or confident enough—or indeed had the time— to try and write it. In the end, it took the totally unexpected arrival of a pandemic and the first lockdown to turn the idea into a reality. Like millions of people, when the virus struck and the world shut down I lost all my work and found myself sitting at home wondering what to do. I was a television director with nothing to direct. For the previous 30 years I had directed many of the UK’s most popular and enduring shows, including Top Gear, A League of Their Own, The Grand Tour, Watchdog and Crimewatch. My diary for March–December 2020 was rammed with new programming involving many of these artists and then Covid closed everything down.

I sat at home wondering what to do next and then a remarkable event happened: I decided I would try flesh out my idea of the safe deposit robbery, which I knew would be a key element of the story. I thought I would begin my research by finding a real bank in Buenos Aires that housed a vault with a safe depository and I was truly astonished when my initial Google search threw up the fact that, in January 2011, the Banco Provincia in Buenos Aires was the victim of one of the biggest safe deposit heists of all time. Thieves tunnelled their way in and escaped with an estimated hundred million dollars’ worth of merchandise. It was a bizarre feeling, as I’d had the idea for the robbery 20 years before it happened in real life! 

That was a key moment as it inspired me to begin the writing process and for the following 12 weeks I worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week and became totally obsessed with the project. The end result was a 90,000-word first draft. No one was more surprised than me or my wife and daughter, who witnessed the entire process unfold. My only escape from constant writing was a daily, late night walk with the family dog, Georgie, a gorgeous Frenchador (yes, a Labrador/French bulldog combo!), who became my thinking companion, when I wanted to explore plot lines.

Q. Many commentators have said your novel would be perfect for screen adaptation. How do you think your career as a TV director has contributed to you writing with a visual style?

A. Without question my career as a television director heavily influenced my style of writing. I find myself visualising each scene, as if I am really there and painting verbal pictures which, I hope, help give a sense of place and realism to the reader. It wasn’t a conscious decision to write in this way but something that just happened organically and I only really appreciated this aspect of the writing as reviews and comments all picked up on that aspect of the book. Readers seem to find themselves visualising a movie or mini-series based on the way the book is written, which I think and hope is a nice bonus!

Q. You have been the director for 26 series of Top Gear. What does your job entail and how does it feel being responsible for arguably the BBC’s biggest programme?

A. In 2001, Jeremy Clarkson and Andy Wilman , the executive producer of the show, asked me to get involved in the relaunch of Top Gear. The show had been dropped by the BBC and they had come up with a brand new format. They wanted me to give it a new home and a new look and I was responsible for turning an old airfield hangar into a TV studio, which had to look different from any other show. Directing the three presenters was a huge challenge as they are all such big personalities but I soon realised it was my job to capture the chemistry they naturally produced together and to ensure it came through the screen to the viewers at home. I worked with them from the very first show in 2002 until 2015 during which time we produced 22 series together. The show  became the biggest programme in the world, being screened in over 100 countries with over 350 million weekly viewers. It was an amazing time in my life and I cherished the huge responsibility I had of working on such an iconic show. In 2016 I left the BBC with them and filmed three series of The Grand Tour for Amazon Prime and then in 2019 I returned to Top Gear and I am currently working on my fifth series with Freddie, Paddy and Chris – my 27th series in total!

Q. You are good friends with Jeremy Clarkson. How did you first meet and how did you come to work with on Top Gear? Also, what is he like as a person?

A. I first met Jeremy Clarkson in 1996, when I approached him to front a Xmas video which I named ‘Jeremy Clarkson Unleashed On Cars’. Subsequently, we made a further 18 video/DVDs  together and, in 2002, he asked me to work with him on his new Top Gear format. He is, in my opinion, a genius—a word I don’t use lightly. A brilliant writer/presenter who had the vision to create a car format which became loved by millions of viewers around the world. He is a strong personality, who knows exactly what he wants and is also one of the funniest men I have ever met. A workaholic and a perfectionist, and also a man who believes in loyalty. Once you become his friend, there is nothing he wouldn’t do to help you.

Q. You are also the director for Sky Max’s most popular entertainment show, A League of Their Own Road Trip. How much involvement do you have with planning the road trips, and what road trip would you love to send the team on?

A. I am very involved in working on the ALOTO Road Trips and am currently working on the sixth series. I work very closely with the producers on the content. We all throw ideas into a huge melting pot and then we pick the best ones and make them happen. The bigger the challenge, the better! I would love the next road trip to be based in Japan as the boys will truly be like fish out of water—struggling with the  language, the culture and the food. I think it could create brilliantly funny TV, as the boys come to terms with such a new and challenging environment.

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