Saturday, December 31, 2016

John Lawton, Then We Take Berlin

John Lawton, Then We Take Berlin
Atlantic Monthly Press © 2013
Available both in print and as an ebook.

We meet John Holdernesse as a late-30s free-lance adventurer, hired to help bring the aunt of an American ad agency executive out of East Berlin, in 1963.  During, as it happens, JFK’s visit to Berlin.  But we are almost immediately taken back to his childhood, during World War II, when he is taken in by his grandfather (who is a thief).  The war ends, and then he is drafted; his aptitude for languages gets him pulled into a British espionage group.  Most of the book, as it happens, deals with that part of his life.

We also meet Nell Burkhardt, a 16-year-old German orphan living with her great-uncle as Germany is collapsing.  She makes her way toward Berlin, and, in what was for me the most moving part of the book, winds up working for the British liberators of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Not surprisingly, Holdernesse (who by now, and for some reason that is never really made clear, is now known as Wilderness) and Burkhardt meet in Berlin.  As a sideline, Joe and some others become actively involved in black market activities, mostly selling to the Russians (using a forgotten tunnel from the British zone to the Soviet zone).  Joe and Nell lose each other along the way.  The post-war Berlin segment is by far the greater part of the book.

But we circle back to the beginning, and the planned escape, and Kennedy’s visit.

Lawton (who has also written a 7-book series featuring a Scotland Yard detective, Frederick Troy) has clearly done his research on the times and places, and he has given us several memorable characters, and a memorable story.  (And, yes, the title has been borrowed from the Leonard Cohen song, "First We Take Manhattan.") There’s a second book recently published, The Unfortunate Englishman, which I’m looking forward to reading soon. 

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