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Monday, September 23, 2013

Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
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AUTHOR INFORMATION: John Lawton is a producer/director in television who has written 1963, a social and political history of the Kennedy-Macmillan years, seven thrillers in the Troy series and a stand-alone novel, Sweet Sunday. He spent most of the 90s in New York but currently lives in Derbyshire UK. He has also edited the poetry of DH Lawrence and the stories of Joseph Conrad. He is devoted to the work of Franz Schubert, Cormac McCarthy, Art Tatum and Barbara Gowdy.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Joe Wilderness is a World War II orphan, a condition that he thinks excuses him from common morality. Cat burglar, card sharp, and Cockney wide boy, the last thing he wants is to get drafted. But in 1946 he finds himself in the Royal Air Force, facing a stretch in military prison . . . when along comes Lt Colonel Burne-Jones to tell him MI6 has better use for his talents.

Posted to occupied Berlin, interrogating ex-Nazis, and burgling the odd apartment for MI6, Wilderness finds himself with time on his hands and the devil making work. He falls in with Frank, a US Army captain, with Eddie, a British artilleryman and with Yuri, a major in the NKVD and together they lift the black market scam to a new level. Coffee never tasted so sweet. And he falls for Nell Breakheart, a German girl who has witnessed the worst that Germany could do and is driven by all the scruples that Wilderness lacks.

Fifteen years later, June 1963. Wilderness is free-lance and down on his luck. A gumshoe scraping by on divorce cases. Frank is a big shot on Madison Avenue, cooking up one last Berlin scam . . . for which he needs Wilderness once more. Only now they're not smuggling coffee, they're smuggling people. And Nell? Nell is on the staff of West Berlin's mayor Willy Brandt, planning for the state visit of the most powerful man in the world: "Ich bin ein Berliner!"

FORMAT/INFO: Then We Take Berlin is 400 pages long divided into two hundred and five chapters that are spread out over three titled sections. The main POV characters are John Wilfrid Holderness and Nell Burkhardt who are presented in third-person along with a few others. This is the first book in a new series by the author.

September 3, 2013 marked the hardcover publication of Then We Take Berlin and was published by Atlantic Monthly Press.

ANALYSIS: I’ve never read John Lawton book before this one. He’s had a previous series, which featured a character set in the pre-WWII era. This book however featured a whole new character and is mostly set partly just after the WWII & then in the 1960s. The story was a strong one but I was partially wrong in regards to the nature of the book.

The story begins in 1963 wherein John Wilfrid Holderness is happily married to Judy but has fallen on rather lean times. He gets called into New York City; by his old wartime associate Frank Spoleto. Frank is a member in the Carver, Sharma and Dunn advertising agency. Joe is a person brought up on the East end side of London. He’s gained his wits after his mother’s death in the German blitz and since then has been brought up by his grandfather. Joe's grandpa Abner is a cat burglar with a particular eye for cracking safes. He moves into Joe’s house with his paramour Merle who sometimes moonlights as a street lady. Joe’s father is a brute who works in the army & whenever he’s home beats Joe, threatens Abner & generally makes life miserable for everyone. Christina Helene Von Raeder "Nell" Burkhardt is an orphan sent to live with her uncle by her mother as Berlin falls. She however faces the brutal impact of the German loss after WWII. Her acceptance of her familial losses leads her to become a very morally hardened person that will thrive in the post war black market. She currently is the person that is tasked by the mayor of Berlin with creating President J.F. Kennedy’s itinerary for his 1963 trip to Berlin.

With these POV characters, we are taken to their teenage years as we are shown how the war has affected Britain and Germany and then we are shown the different career paths taken by Joe and Nell both. The main story unfolds in post war Germany as the author portrays a bleak if not entirely abject atmosphere. The reader is shown how both these characters come to become the characters we have met at the start of the book in 1963. The author’s research is where the main story gets its backbone from & while I’m no expert, to me it was a very captivating read. The author shows us how the black marketers went about and how Joe and Nell meet each other while doing their own things.

While these are the main POV characters, there’s a big side character cast who are equally enigmatic, interesting and flawed. They are the people that Joe meets such as Lieutenant Colonel A. Burne-Jones & Rada, who shape his worldview while saving him from his self-destructive tendencies and wizen him for the world. There are also Abner & Merle who in turn become parent figures to Joe but because of their own acts scar his psyche in small but significant ways. With Nell, there’s a whole range of folks that come across her path and mold her into the person she is by death, savagery, sympathy & even a little serendipity.

With this book, I thought it to be a standalone but I was sadly mistaken about that as the climax proved oh so strongly. But to get to the meat of the plot, it is about the tragic circumstances that were prevalent in Berlin divided into East & West sections. Firstly the main group of characters used to smuggle goods like cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, etc. but now nearly fifteen years later are tasked to smuggle people and therein lies the whole Herculean quandary as to how to go about it.

The book serves like a prologue to the lengthy events that are to come as the author goes all out in building up his world for the modern readers to visualize & imagine. The characterization is competently handled as all characters are given pages & time to entrance the reader but the book suffers from this as the pace stutters quite a bit in the first half of the book. While the author shows the growth of the world and the main characters, he takes his time and therein lies the catch-22 situation, for some readers will love the author for this move while others will castigate him for taking his time to get to the meat of the plot. I found myself hoping that the slack pace would pick up but it wasn’t something that happened quickly.

Lastly the ending is a bit of a stunner and would have been better appreciated had I know that this book was the first of a series and not a standalone. As the climax occurred, I kept flipping pages to see if my ARC was missing pages but afterwards I learnt that this was how the book ended and perhaps a line saying, “to be continued” would have been nice. Overall I have to say while this book had its faults; overall it is still a good book for its strengths make it all worthwhile in the end.

CONCLUSION: This was my first tryst with John Lawton’s works and I have to say I’m impressed. He seems to be utterly fascinating with his historical thrillers and herein he does his best to introduce a new cast of characters for fans of his Inspector Troy series. Then We Take Berlin is simply a good historical thriller that perhaps needed bit of tightening in its middle to liven up its pace.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I was recently in Berlin and its a fascinating place - a city of contrasts - great culture but hidden reminders of the horrors of the past.

Shame that this book is a bit slow, but it sounds like it is a good read nevertheless.


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