James Stejskal’s debut espionage thriller takes place in 1979 in a divided Berlin. Located in the heart of then-Communist East Germany, Berlin was notoriously fertile territory for spies. In East Berlin and the country surrounding the city were the Soviets and the Stasi, East Germany’s repressive secret police. In West Berlin, some 180 kilometers behind the Iron Curtain, sat the Allies, with sectors of the city allocated to Britain, France and the United States.
West Berlin therefore constituted an island of Western influence and governance in the middle of East Germany, an awkward relationship that was a legacy of World War II. Cold War tensions only intensified with the construction of the wall around West Berlin in 1961.
By the time the novel begins, the written and unwritten rules governing the strange minuet between spies and diplomats of east and west have been largely formalised. One key practice is allowing ‘freedom of passage patrols’ by the Western Allies and the Soviets to tour the other side’s occupied zones. By treaty, those patrols could not be stopped or searched. Still, the occasional checkpoint could, at any time, create a problem or delay, despite the rules.
But what are rules for, except to be broken or at least bent? Chief rule-breaker here is Master Sergeant Kim Becker, a Vietnam veteran and now a member of the US army’s elite Studies and Operations Group, assigned to a clandestine Special Forces unit. He has a team of creative and not-by-the-book operatives around him, and they receive a special assignment.
A CIA asset, an East German high up in the Communist state’s security apparatus, believes he’s come under suspicion. He wants out. It will be up to Becker and his team to develop and implement a plan to extract him.
Stejskal convincingly establishes the riskiness of the mission and its various ingenious stages, as well as the suspect-everyone mindset necessary for people living under such a difficult regime. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on literary flourishes and detailed description, but you will be turning pages too quickly to miss them. Despite the impressive number of contingencies Becker’s team is prepared for and their attention to espionage tradecraft, the unexpected still occurs. Even then, the rescuers aren’t victims of their plan, they have a powerful capacity to improvise.
A flashback to Becker’s Vietnam experience provides additional insight into his character and, as he matures, he becomes consumed with more than operational details. Fundamentally, he wants to believe that a mission is worth risking the lives of his men. He’s certainly seen assignments that were not. Navel-gazing isn’t what this book is about, though, so there’s not too much of it. Not enough to take the edge off the adventure, that’s for sure.
Modern warrior-hero stories are often either too far-fetched or too poorly written to recommend. In this one, though, the action is described with just enough detail to make it believable and not so much that the story bogs down. The writing is clear and compelling and doesn’t get in the way of the telling.
Stejskal calls this Book One of The Snake Eater Chronicles, so there are likely to be more. I’d definitely read another.
James Stejskal spent 35 years serving with the US Army Special Forces. After his military service, he was recruited by the CIA and served as a senior case officer in Africa, Europe, the Far East and elsewhere. He is now a military historian who has written several nonfiction books.
Also check out The Same Sky, the espionage drama starring Sofia Helin, set in East and West Berlin in the 1970s. A Question of Time is out 9 Nov in the US and arrives on 15 December in the UK.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars