The Counterfeit Candidate, the debut novel by award-winning Top Gear director Brian Klein, is an instant classic that would be perfect for TV or film adaptation—a gripping, cinematic thriller packed with crime, passion and power connected with the descendants of the most evil man in history: Adolf Hitler.
By Gwyneth Rees
For those who love a high-intensity political thriller packed with jeopardy and guided by a pulsating plot then The Counterfeit Candidate will prove unmissable.
Written by BAFTA Award-winning TV director Brian Klein, it’s a classic high-concept page turner which asks the question: what would have happened if Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun, hadn’t actually killed themselves in a Berlin bunker at the end of World War Two but had, in fact, managed to escape and create new lives for themselves.
This ‘what-if’ scenario is, of course, one of the great conspiracy theories of the 20tth century, and in this brilliant novel the alternative history premise is explored and exploited to its maximum plausible potential.
As the narrative unfolds, we are presented with two separate yet intertwined time period. The first details Hitler’s escape on a decrepit boat to South America in 1945 and the second zooms forward to 2012, where thieves stage a sensational bank robbery in Argentina, escaping with $90m and boxes of highly sensitive material.
One of these boxes belongs to Richard Franklin, CEO of the Franklin Pharmaceutical Corporation in San Francisco and, as we soon learn, the son of Hitler.
His son, Hitler’s grandson, is John George Franklin, the Republican presidential candidate for the upcoming election and the firm favourite in the polls with an almost unassailable lead.
The investigation into the bank raid falls on the desk of Chief Inspector Nicholas Vargas of the Buenos Aires Police Department, who with dogged determination sets out to track down the thieves and uncover what, exactly, was in the boxes they stole.
But it is not just the police who want answers. Franklin’s henchmen, the ‘finders’, also need to track down the material so the greatest secret on earth isn’t exposed—and they will stop at nothing to do so.
Eventually, both Vargas and his buddy Troy Hembury, a lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), are able to recover the contents of the box and the explosive link between Hitler, the Franklins and their heinous quest for power.
But their fast-moving investigation and forbidden knowledge puts both their lives at risk as the stakes get higher.
The Counterfeit Candidate offers a rollercoaster ride of pure escapism with so much momentum behind it that you’ll be glued to your chair until the very last page.
Fans of author Klein’s TV work, most notably the BBC’s iconic motoring show Top Gear—which he has directed for 26 seasons—will already appreciate his cinematic eye and talent for adrenalin-pumping action shots, and he brings his full arsenal to bear in this, his sensational literary debut.
Part crime novel, part mystery, part historical fiction, as well as a punchy adventure, its addictive stuff and is skilfully crafted to ramp up the tension and sense of peril without sacrificing its believability.
While the story is firmly driven by the powerhouse plot, Klein deserves full credit for creating living, breathing characters you can invest in, not least the former Führer himself. Hiding from the world, his face cosmetically altered, he exudes evil and the terrible will to power that once thrust the world into devastating global conflict.
Klein, whose other directing credits include Sky Max’s flagship entertainment show A League of Their Own Road Trip, is also adept at handling the jumps between different viewpoints and timelines. In the hands of a lesser writer this could have been jarring but he never drops the ball, keeping the narrative flowing between the short yet pacey chapters, and ensuring that the plot is always easy to keep up with.
For me, my favourite element of the novel, which never outstays its 380-plus pages, is the competing goals of the characters.
Political family the Franklins—beyond anything—need to keep their family secret hidden to win the election, while their well-paid henchmen, beyond anything, need to recover the secret documents, and the police need to uncover the truth.
This clash makes for some highly-charged, high-octane reading, with hit men, murders, cover ups and thwarted plans awaiting around every corner.
The set pieces are also magnificent, pushing up the pressure with devilish glee. The perfectly-planned bank raid itself, the gun-fights, and the scene where police come to realise the frail old lady they are speaking to is none other than Hitler’s wife, are pure popcorn moments.
Since its publication through Spirit Entertainment, The Counterfeit Candidate has been garnering significant praise, not only from the media but also a host of celebrities and the reading public alike.
Top Gear’s former presenter Jeremy Clarkson has hailed it as “brilliant” while A League of Their Own Road Trip presenter Jamie Redknapp declared that “I couldn’t put it down”.
Perhaps the biggest accolade has come from best-selling crime fiction author Peter James, who has stated it is “The best ‘what if?’ thriller I’ve read since Day of the Jackal”.
Because of its strong visual feel, it’s no surprise to learn that a potential TV mini-series based on the novel is currently gaining momentum.
Even though I’ve now read the novel, I’d be first in line to watch it all over again on the small screen. Like many have stated online, once you’ve finished it, you get withdrawal symptoms, and that, again, must be because as a seasoned, celebrated director, Klein knows how to hook your interest and keep it.
It’s somewhat odd to learn that Klein, who wrote the boo during the first lockdown—based on an idea he’d been harbouring for some 40 years—never had any aspirations to be an author because he is one of the rarest breed of writers: a natural storyteller.
Happily, the hugely positive reception it has received has made him think again and he’s now working on a sequel set for release in 2022.
If you hadn’t guessed, I adored The Counterfeit Candidate. Just like you expect from all the cars he captures on-screen, Top Gear TV director Brian Klein has delivered a novel firing on all cylinders.
Author Brian Klein may have to clear some space on his awards shelf as if his confident debut doesn’t scoop a gong or two then it will be a bigger crime than the bank robbery at the novel’s centre.
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
MEET THE AUTHOR: BRIAN KLEIN
The Counterfeit Candidate author Brian Klein is one of British TV’s most revered directors, with a string of hit shows to his name including Top Gear, A League of Their Own Road Trip, and This Is Your Life. Here, we profile his celebrated career to date.
In an alternative world, Brian Klein may have entered the legal profession, as he intended to do after graduating from Queen Mary University of London with a degree in politics and history.
However, upon further reflection, he decided instead to pursue a career within the media. In 1979, at the age of 21, he joined The Weekly News as a trainee reporter but left within six months to become a researcher on ITV’s This Is Your Life. Then presented by Eamonn Andrews, the weekly celebrity biography show was one of the station’s most-popular entertainment programmes and, for Brian, it was a dream job, allowing him to travel the world and meet all his idols, such as Hollywood legends Kirk Douglas and Sean Connery.
He swiftly rose to become the show’s assistant producer and then, at the age of 25, became its producer—making him the youngest producer in ITV’s history. Subsequently, he would go on to train as a director and directed 250 episodes of the show with new presenter Michael Aspel.
When Thames Television, the ITV arm that had made This Is Your Life, lost its franchise in 1992, Brian chose to go freelance and launched his own production company, On The Box. At first, it specialised in stand-up comedy videos featuring comics such as Mike Read and Jim Davidson but in 1996 Klein approached Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson with the suggestion of making a motoring-related video “about everything he didn’t like about cars”. The video, Clarkson Unleashed, proved a smash hit and annual Clarkson videos, and later DVDs, became an unofficial Christmas tradition, selling over 50million copies in total.
In 2002, Clarkson invited Brian to direct a new show he was pitching to the BBC to replace Top Gear, which had been cancelled the previous year due to declining ratings. Then known as ‘Carmaggedon’, it would feature a mysterious, helmeted racing driver called “The Gimp”, and various regular segments including ‘Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car’.
Just one week before the show, now rebranded as Top Gear, was due to air, the production team were forced to change The Gimp to ‘The Stig’ because of fears that Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino would take legal action over the use of the name, it having been that of a character in Pulp Fiction. Brian remembers that when Clarkson suggested the replacement name, he said it was awful and that “It will never catch on”. A few years later, ‘The Stig’ became one of most googled name in the world.
The new version of Top Gear was a ratings winner and quickly became one of the most-popular TV shows not only in the UK but around the world, showering the production team with accolades including a coveted BAFTA Award for Brian.
Brian has now directed 26 series of Top Gear, including the new series hitting the small screen later this year, making him the beloved show’s longest-serving director. He has also directed a raft of other hit shows including three series of Sky Max’s most-popular entertainment show, A League of Their Own Road Trip, as well as three seasons of Amazon Prime’s The Grand Tour, which reunited him with the classic Top Gear trio of Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May. On The Box, meanwhile, had continued to release comedy DVDs, directed by Brian, featuring some of Britain’s biggest comedians including Jimmy Carr, Micky Flanagan, and Frankie Boyle.
Now in his 60s, Brian freely admits that he never had any intentions of becoming an author but that all changed in March 2020, when the UK entered the first Covid lockdown. “All my upcoming TV projects were cancelled and for the first time in my career I literally had nothing on my work calendar,” he says. Making use of this unexpected hiatus, he spent the next 10 weeks writing The Counterfeit Candidate, based on an idea that he’d had ever since his university days.
Since its release this summer, the alternative history thriller has been hailed as an “instant classic” in the genre, and a potential mini-series adaptation is now in the works. Brian, however, says that on this occasion he will leave the directing to somebody else who is “experienced in directing drama”. He, meanwhile, will continue shooting Top Gear and other hit shows while, somehow, finding the time to write the novel’s hotly-anticipated sequel.
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR BRIAN KLEIN
We speak with BAFTA Award-winning TV director turned author Brian Klein to learn more about his acclaimed debut novel, thriller The Counterfeit Candidate, the challenges he faced in getting it published, and his experiences working with Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear, among other things.
Q. You never had any aspirations to be an author, but The Counterfeit Candidate is being hailed as an instant classic of the genre. Why do you think you were able to write so effectively, especially considering you are a debut author?
A. I feel the biggest inspiration and influence in my writing comes from the fact that for the last 30 years I have exclusively read thrillers as a pastime—so Robert Ludlum, John Grisham, David Baldacci, Frederick Forsyth, Dan Brown and Robert Harris are all my go-to authors. I think, somehow, the specialised genre and technique of thriller writing—short, pacey chapters with constant twists and turns—somehow embedded itself in my brain without me even realising it and I discovered I had the right tools to take on the challenge of writing a thriller.
Q. How did you first come up with the story for The Counterfeit Candidate?
A. The idea for The Counterfeit Candidate first came into my mind nearly 40 years ago, shortly after I left university. I had studied Modern History and Politics at London University and the centrepiece of my studies was Hitler and the Second World War. It always struck me as highly suspicious that unlike many senior Nazis, the Führer didn’t take advantage of the obvious escape route to South America but chose to take his own life instead. I read about Stalin’s meeting with Churchill and Roosevelt at Potsdam in 1945 shortly after the end of the Second World War (which I reference in the novel’s prologue) where the Russian leader revealed that he believed Hitler had escaped from Berlin and was on the run in either Spain or Argentina. This led me to speculate about ‘what if …’ Hitler escaped with Eva Braun and Martin Bormann to Argentina and built a new life in Patagonia and started a family. I wondered how it might impact the present day and then I hatched the idea that his grandson could be groomed from birth to become the US President—a plan hatched nearly 70 years before it would come to fruition. Once I had that concept, I knew I needed to create some jeopardy, which is why I came up with the bank robbery at the safe depository. Those three elements—Hitler’s escape, the birth of his son and, subsequently, his grandson and the safe deposit robbery where three audacious thieves unwittingly raided a box containing documents that reveal the truth about Hitler’s secret life—all combined to create the background to what I hope is a thrilling story.
Q. The Counterfeit Candidate is split into two separate timelines. Was this the most challenging thing to write, and why?
A. Writing two timelines was, without doubt, the most challenging issue that I faced in writing the book. In fact, I found it impossible to write the book in a linear fashion as I couldn’t just switch my brain from 2012 to 1945 and then back again— it was just too hard! So, in the end I decided to write the timelines as two separate books. I wrote the contemporary story first—knowing that I would be breaking it up with at least 12 flashback chapters chronicling Hitler’s post-war life. In many ways I enjoyed writing the flashback chapters more than the main story as by the time I wrote them I knew exactly what I needed to achieve in order for them to dovetail into the main story arc.
Q. Your novel poses a classic high concept ‘what-if’: what would have happened if Hitler hadn’t died in 1945. Some fringes of the internet, however, believe that Hitler actually did survive. Why do you think such conspiracy theories take root?
A. One of the 20th century’s greatest conspiracy theory revolves around the intriguing question, ‘Did Adolf Hitler really die in the bunker or, in reality, did he fake his suicide , escape war-torn Berlin and build a new life in hiding in South America’. As I reference in the book, this theory first gained weight just a few months after the end of the Second World War at the famous Potsdam Conference, where Josef Stalin publicly declared that he believed Hitler had escaped his Red Army and was on the run somewhere in Spain or Argentina. The genie was out of the bottle as early as 17th July 1945, when the Russian leader made this announcement to Churchill and Roosevelt. After that, countless sightings of the Führer were documented in South America and rumours persisted throughout the following 30 years that Hitler’s death had been staged. These rumours have spawned countless articles, books and TV documentaries—all attempting to prove that Hitler faked his suicide and escaped to Argentina where he lived in secrecy for many years.
Q. Your novel would be perfect for a film or TV adaptation. If you were the director of such an adaptation, who would you cast and why?
A. Readers of the book have already begun contacting me via social media to suggest actors who might play the lead roles! In my own mind I have a few ideas bubbling away, so here you go:
Eva Braun – Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith
Nicolas Vargas – Matt Damon, Leonard De Caprio,
Troy Hembury – John Washington
Martin Bormann – Tim Robbins
Richard Franklin – Paul Giamatti, Hugh Grant
John Franklin – Ryan Gosling
Q. As a first-time author, how difficult was it to find a publisher for your novel?
A. As a first-time author it was really hard to secure a publisher. Firstly, I set about securing a literary agent and had over 50 rejections within a week of emailing an initial approach, which was pretty devastating. However, one agent did reply with a positive reaction and was tremendously excited by the book and after a few Zoom meetings I signed with him. His name is Paul Feldstein and he runs a literary agency in Belfast. Paul set about trying to secure a publisher and although we received fantastic feedback from many of the ‘big players’ in the publishing world, none of them wanted to take a risk on a ‘newbie’. So, I suggested we try some US publishers as the story takes place mainly in North and South America. Amazingly, within weeks of submitting, we received two offers, one from a New York-based company and one based in Los Angeles. I met by Zoom with both and in the end signed with Level Best Books in New York. Between literary agents and publishers I must have had well over 150 rejections—but just kept on going!
Q. Your book has been highly praised, both by the reading public and celebrities. What feedback are you most proud of , and why?
A. The book has received wonderful feedback from readers, reviewers, bloggers and high-profile celebrities but, by far, the most exciting and amazing feedback came from crime writer, Peter James, who has sold over 20 million books—including more than 10 bestsellers in the UK and the US. He read the book shortly after release and sent through an email containing the following quote: “A brilliant concept, written with verve and completely enthralling. The best ‘what if?’ thriller I’ve read since Day of the Jackal. Brian Klein is destined to become a very big name in the thriller genre.”
Q. Given the success of your first novel, what are your plans as a writer going forward?
A. The success of the book has led to my publisher asking me to write a sequel, which poses an exciting but very tricky challenge, as I think, ironically, that the national lockdown gave me the clear air to write the book and now I am juggling a career as TV director with that of an author. Many readers have also been in touch asking for a sequel and so I have now started the process of formulating a brand new story. Remember, the idea for The Counterfeit Candidate was stuck inside my head for many years. Now I need to formulate a brand new idea for the sequel !
Q. You have enjoyed a glittering career as a TV director, but are perhaps most famous for Top Gear. Speaking about the Jeremy Clarkson era, what was it like working with Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May?
A. I have worked with Clarkson for 25 years and with the three of them (Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May) for 19 years on 22 series of Top Gear and three series of The Grand Tour. My longer association with Clarkson is due to the fact that between 1996 and 2002 I directed his highly successful Christmas cars DVDs. The three guys have incredible chemistry and working, filming and travelling the world with the three of them has been a joy and a privilege. They are all incredibly funny men in their own right, and put them together and very funny and creative sparks begin to fly!
They love to play around but are also incredibly professional and if anyone lives by the famous mantra, ‘work hard and play hard’ then it is these three guys.
Q. You are currently shooting the forthcoming series of Top Gear. Why do you think the series remains such a huge and cherished TV show after all these years?
A. Even with three new presenters, Top Gear remains one of the most popular and enduring TV shows in television history and I think the reason is that, fundamentally, it is not a programme about cars but a show about human relationships: how do three blokes behave when they are together? Everyone watching the three guys’ banter and interactions would secretly love to hang out with them as they make everything look such great fun, and I think that fact alone is the true secret of the programme’s success.