Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton

2 Mins read

Having already penned seven Inspector Troy novels the author, director and screenwriter John Lawton’s latest offering is a thriller that is sure to have any fan of John Le Carré’s Smiley novels gripped.

The book opens in Berlin in 1963, where the authorities are busy preparing for JFK’s visit to the city. We’re briefly introduced to Nell, a young woman who will feature in the core of the story, most of which takes in Berlin much earlier –  just as World War II is coming to an end and the job of stabilisation has just begun.

Next we meet John Holderness, the novel’s main character. It’s still 1963, and we find him at home in Hampstead, but he receives a phone call that brings him face to face with his past. A trip to New York results in an interesting business proposition – to smuggle an elderly Jewish lady out of East Berlin. So John heads back into a world he’d moved on from almost 15 years earlier. Will he have to contend with all the same dangers as he did all those years ago?

In 1942, a bombing raid in the East End left 12-year-old John without a mother and he was taken in by a grandfather he barely knows. The man treats him with kindness but makes his living by less than honest means, and is determined to educate his grandson in the arts of burglary and safe cracking. By the time John’s National Service call up papers arrive in 1945, his grandfather is dead and he has transformed into a young man living by his wits but struggling to deal with authority figures, something that frequently lands him on Jankers – British forces slang for punishment.

However, a chance meeting with Lieutenant Colonel Burne-Jones presents him with an opportunity to put his skills to use for Queen and country. Taught to speak German and trained to read people, John works in the heart of post war Germany where he meets Nell, a young woman whose life has also been shaped by her experiences. Old habits die hard and he becomes involved in the black market for cigarettes, coffee and soap with fellow British serviceman, Eddie Clark. When a US captain and a Russian major enter the stakes rise, but so do the risks. For John and Eddie the sacrifices could be greater than either of them is willing to make. Fast forward to 1963 – yet again John finds himself facing the same questions, while learning valuable lessons about trust.

Most of the action in the book takes place in the 1940s as we follow John from trainee burglar through to MI6 operative. As a character he’s quick, smart and adaptable to each new situation but he has plenty of rough edges. He’s a crook, but he’s likeable and does follow a code of sorts.

Then We Take Berlin is a fairly gripping read and clearly the aim of the story is to develop the character so you understand why he does what he does. At the same time, we are given a thorough insight into the world he moves in. Germany in the years following World War II was a dangerous place with more than black market goods lurking in the shadows. You are presented with enough information to build a picture of this world however. Having grabbed my attention and held onto it for the majority of the book, the story did fall a little flat as it reached its finale. It didn’t quite seem to gel with the rest of the story. The question I found myself asking was whether or not the ending was grafted on purposely with the intention of starting a new series?

Grove Press

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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