Then We Take Berlin – John Lawton

Look at the cover quote from the New York Times:

“A stylish spy thriller”

Look at the cover quote from the Sun:

“Lawton’s up there with Philip Kerr and Alan Furst. Yes, he’s that good.”

That suggests a certain quality which, regrettably, the book fails to deliver. (Who wrote those reviews?) My short review: a spy thriller that doesn’t quite match the leaders in the field.

Let’s see. What do we have?

The anti-hero and central figure is John Holderness, commonly known as Wilderness. We see Wilderness as a young man, living with his grandfather and joining in the older man’s house breaking activities. Without giving too much away, this apprenticeship leads to Wilderness’ elevation – from within the armed forces – to a sort of spook. The irrepressible fellow that he is, shortly after he gets to post war Berlin, he is knee deep in spies and smuggling. He eventually returns to Britain, but is then recruited for another mission: to smuggle someone across from East Germany. It means a return to Berlin and some old familiar places and faces.

On the plus side, the Wilderness character has a ton of potential. Unfortunately, I did not find the portrayal engrossing or interesting. Something was missing.

The background – from wartime Britain to post war Berlin – is rendered with detail upon detail. My impression is that the research behind the novel was extensive and the author felt the need to cram in as much of it as possible. Possibly too much, because at times the story flags under the weight of too much description.

The plot is not bad at all. It operates within reasonable boundaries and drives the tension up. To balance the complaint about the descriptions sometimes being over long, there were times when this book did become a true page turner.

So, in short, a bit of a mixed bag. It doesn’t live up to the cover quote – in my opinion, it needed a heavy edit to make it much better – but it was enjoyable enough.