Grove Atlantic Inc., $26.00, 418 pages, ISBN 978-0-8021-2196-7
I’ve always enjoyed reading historical fiction or crime and espionage novels, as well as most anything to do with World War II and the early cold war period. When I found an unfamiliar author who had just written a novel that combined all those elements into one project . . . I couldn’t wait to get a copy and dive in, see if all the publicity and book jacket blurbs were accurate, or just hype. I’m happy to report that this week’s MBR more than meets expectations, and uncovers another high-quality, but often over-looked author named John Lawton. His new novel Then We Take Berlin, takes place in Berlin during the aftermath of World War II; when the city was isolated behind the Iron Curtain and divided into four sectors controlled by the US, Britain, France and the USSR . . . an unsettled few years during which governments were being reestablished, the process of rebuilding Europe was getting underway, and, because the basic necessities of life weren’t readily available . . . there was a thriving black market. When combined, those factors made Berlin a thieves bazaar . . . and a smugglers paradise. Into this cauldron of fomenting hardship and discontent, author Lawton introduces us to Joe Wilderness, a British orphan who survived the Blitz, using his skills as a burglar and three card Monte hustler . . . he’s a cockey criminal with an astonishing ability to remember all that he sees, reads or is told. When we engage as readers with him, Wilderness has been drafted into Great Britain’s RAF, or Royal Air Force, where he’s in prison, for insubordination and faced with a lengthy sentence. He’s freed, under the auspices of a British Secret Service officer and given an accelerated college education in German and Russian languages, including advanced studies in art, culture and nuclear physics at Cambridge, then posted to Berlin as the war ends. He spends his days interviewing ex-Nazis and doing occasional burglary jobs for the British Secret Service. At night, he teams up with Frank, an American Office of Secret Services, or OSS officer, and Yuri, a Major in the Russian Secret Service, or NVKD and they proceed to set up a monumental smuggling operation with the intention of making themselves rich. Then, Wilderness meets Nell, an aristocratic German girl who possesses “all the scruples that he lacks,” and things become even more complicated, culminating in President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 visit and Ich bin ein Berliner speech that rocked the world.
This excellent, well-written and erudite novel will captivate, delight and educate you about an important, but overlooked part of mid-twentieth century history. It’s a great read!