For me, historical fiction all too often falls into one of two camps. It's either so detailed that you get lost in the details and don't get much in the way of story. Or it focuses almost entirely on story and doesn't provide enough detail to set the stage. Voices Under Berlin is like the Baby Bear's bowl of porridge in the Three Bears. It provides just the right amount of details to enhance an already gripping story.
Voices Under Berlin is a novel about the Berlin Spy Tunnel started by the American and British military and intelligence forces in the American Sector of Berlin after World War II. Work on the tunnel began in February 1954 and American forces operated it until April 1956 when it was finally discovered by the Russians.
The Berlin Spy Tunnel was a joint operation between the American CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). These forces dug a tunnel below the border between the Western sector of Berlin and the Soviet sector to tap into Russian communications between the Soviet spy masters in Berlin and their leaders in Moscow.
The story, amid the history, is about a small number of soldiers who constructed the tunnel, administered the wiretaps, and translated the calls made by their Russian counterparts.
Though Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) has been around for as long as there have been signals to intercept, it's amazing to see the type, depth, and breadth of information gathered and used during the two years the tunnel was operational. The soldiers involved were privy to private phone calls between Berlin and Moscow, which provided details about operations by the Russian intelligence agents in Berlin as well as amazing insight into Russian politics as viewed by those Russian agents in Berlin.
The included transcripts providing the Russian side of the equation were not only a major part of the story (it's what the men were there to do), but they were also part of the give and take of the times. We learned to like some of these Soviet spies that the guys were listening to. It was a glimpse into the human side of intelligence gathering that's tough to get across. I thought Hill handled it masterfully.
Author T.H.E. Hill also managed to bring the human element into the novel, allowing us to watch relationships develop among the men and some of the local women in Berlin, some of whom were spying on them. Each of the main characters — Kevin, Fast Eddie, Sheerluck, and others — gives us glimpses into a segregated Berlin after World War II. There were many difficulties and challenges of living in a city separated by walls into the American, British, Russian, and French sectors.
And amid the day to day drudgery and danger of working as spies in post-war Berlin, Hill also weaves a great deal of humor seamlessly into the story. It's the humor of military life and the quirks of people forced to work together under pressure. These pranksters and tricksters born of boredom and spite come up with some great ways to even the score between enlisted men and officers.
What's even more interesting to me is that Berlin was segregated by walls from the end of World War II until 1990 when the walls came down. Nearly 40 years of a city and country divided.
If you're a fan of historical fiction, spy novels, or just looking for a great story, Voices Under Berlin has a little bit for everyone. It's a quick, enjoyable, and educational read.
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