John Lawton, December 2013, 432 pages, Grove Press / Atlantic Monthly Press, ISBN: 1611856124
Reviewed by Norman Price.
(Read more of Norman's reviews for Euro Crime here.)
THEN WE TAKE BERLIN, the latest book by John Lawton, author of the acclaimed Inspector Troy series, begins in 1963 with the two main characters many miles apart.
Aristocratic German Christina Helene von Raeder Burkhardt, conveniently know as Nell, is in Berlin as assistant to Mayor Willy Brandt as they plan the itinerary for the visit of President Kennedy.
While cockney John Holderness, known as Joe to his pals and Wilderness to his women is about to receive an offer to visit Frank Spoleto, his old associate from their exploits in post-war Berlin, all expenses paid. Frank is apparently a partner in Carver, Sharma and Dunn, a Madison Avenue advertising agency. Frank persuades Joe, for twenty grand, to help Steve Sharma’s maiden aunt, a Jew who somehow survived the war in Berlin, but now stuck behind the Berlin Wall and wishes to get out of Communist East Germany for the freedoms of the West.
The rest of the book is a long convoluted back-story that relates incidents in the lives of Joe and Nell during the war and its aftermath. All the strands in the narrative lead back to a conclusion in Berlin in 1963.
Cockney Joe Wilderness comes from very different strata of British society than Frederick Troy. Joe’s mother is killed in the Blitz, and with his abusive father in the army, his grandfather Abner Riley, a safebreaker, and his much younger girlfriend Merle, a part-time prostitute, look after the teenager. Young Joe accompanies Abner on his expeditions learning his tricks of the trade. But as the war ends Joe is called up for his National Service in the RAF where his insubordinate behaviour towards the casual brutality of the NCOs leads him ending up in the glass-house.
Intelligence Officer Alec Burne-Jones rescues him from the drudgery of square bashing and cleaning toilets with a toothbrush. The IQ test set on Joe’s entry to the service shows that this well-read cockney wide boy is a bit of a genius, and Burne-Jones realises he could be useful in Germany unmasking Nazis and looking for nuclear scientists.
Meanwhile Nell sent by her parents to live with an uncle at Celle in Lower Saxony makes her way through a shattered country via Bergen-Belsen, where she helps to identify, nurse and interpret for the haggard survivors, to her home Berlin and to a relationship with Joe, who is now deeply embedded in series of black market scams.
I am a fan of John Lawton’s Troy series, which goes way beyond simple crime and spy fiction and resembles a social history of the time. THEN WE TAKE BERLIN has been called a Troy novel without Troy, although it certainly meets the Troy standard of eccentricity, humour, meticulous historical research and readability. Lawton is one of those authors who because of his historical subject matter can have you smiling and crying on the same page. In THEN WE TAKE BERLIN we are given a brief scattering of characters from the Troy series, with a very fleeting appearance of the man himself. While Eddie Clark an occasional character in the Troy series becomes a central figure in the black market scams arranged by Frank and Joe, and unreliable NKVD Major Yuri.
John Lawton’s memorable characters, for instance Rada, a wonderful old Russian exile living in Cornwall Gardens who is asked by Burne–Jones to brush up Joe’s Russian and German language but decides to educate him about European society, are usually larger than life.
How she had danced with Kaiser Bill in 1912… More charm than than you might imagine.
But in this novel his themes and the atmosphere are more compelling. A Europe destroyed with over 12 million displaced persons, Germany shattered with women prepared to do anything for food or coffee or cigarettes. The race to obtain the services of nuclear scientists, Belsen and the Holocaust, the attempt to remove former Nazis from public life with the issuing of “Persilscheins”, the Berlin airlift of 1948, the Cold War, JFK and “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”, all find their allotted place in the narrative.
This historical novel is a fine read, although a little episodic in the later third, and it is a book with great educational value even if you take into consideration the slight liberties with history explained in the author’s notes. Joe Wilderness might well become as an addictive a read as Troy.
How do you end a novel that quirkily blends mentions of real life people Edward Teller, Lise Meitner, Ernest Bevin, Ingrid Bergman and Broadway producer Arthur Cantor with your new fictional hero Joe Wilderness, a cockney safecracker, spy, and mensch? Well you have to accept a little eccentricity from a brilliant writer such as John Lawton. Let us hope we don’t have to wait too long for the sequel.
“Ah….the British doctors. Everything in its place. Yes. And I shall answer. I had not a day’s illness in my life until last year.”
“I caught an incurable disease.”
“What’s it called?”
Norman Price, December 2013