John Holderness a.k.a. Joe Wilderness is a private eye scraping by in 1963 era London, when one night he receives a call from his old war time buddy Frank Spoleto in America, who wants John to fly to New York, all expenses paid. Such largesse is usually a sign of trouble, and, sure enough, Wilderness is heading into trouble when he boards a Pan Am flight.
Frank has done well for himself, becoming a partner in one of New York’s advertising agencies in what is the golden age of Madison Avenue. Of course, the agency is not what it seems, and neither are Frank’s partners. One of Frank’s partners at the agency, Steven Sharma, (not his real name), wants Wilderness to get his wife’s Jewish aunt out of East Berlin. Of course, Steve is lying to Wilderness, a fact that Joe discovers only when he meets her in East Germany. She is, in fact, much younger that he was lead to believe, not at all Jewish. And Joe has seen her before, a number of years back, when he was following a nuclear spy Szabo. Joe realizes soon enough that he’s smack in the middle of international atomic intrigue into which he has been unwittingly drawn by Frank and Steven.
Unfortunately for those looking for an espionage thriller set in the early years of the Cold War, the rescue story is not the main story of the book. Then We Take Berlin is a frame story, and the bulk of the book is essentially a biographical narrative, tracing the rise and transformation of John Holderness from his youth as an East End cat burglar to Joe Wilderness, a man working for British intelligence under the tutelage of Lieutenant Colonel Burne-Jones.
The two meet when Jones rescues Holderness from serving time for insubordination and striking an officer in 1946. John has just been drafted into the Royal Air Force, where he is in deep trouble due to his cheeky attitude and contempt for his superiors, such as they are. Fortunately for him, and the plot, John also happens to be very smart, so much so that he shows up on radar for British intelligence, thanks to his high IQ score. In the nick of time Colonel Burne-Jones fishes John out of the hot water he’s in and sends him off to a place Joe couldn’t even dream of — Oxford — where his superior skills with languages soon exhaust the best efforts of his tutors, making him eligible for private lessons courtesy of a mysterious Russian Countess Rada Lyubova, who also happens to have a number of interesting dossiers on the German nuclear program and many other secrets.The countess, too, is impressed with this clever Cockney, and soon Joe finds himself in Germany, his assignment to interview Germans who might have a Nazi past they are trying to hide. Specifically, German scientists.
Lawton has done his homework and his post-war Germany comes across with the right sort of feel. While Lawton’s Germany is admirably reconstructed and his characters well drawn, there is little tension associated with Joe’s assignment or any of the experiences he undergoes while in Germany, making for less than thrilling reading. The biggest thrill, if one can call it that, is the dry goods smuggling operation in which Joe involves himself. I expected more here, something bigger as far as the subject matter and its possibilities are concerned, than smuggling. But Lawton only teases us with the possibilities of a conflict with the Russians over German scientists that may still remain in Germany.
Why such huge dose of character and back story background work in what is after all just a thriller? The answer, of course, is that this is a literary thriller and an apparent start of a new series. But literary thrillers, as a genre, are very hard to pull off because of the conflicting requirements of both a thriller and a literary novel. As a beginning of a series, then, this book is hugely underwhelming rather than a salvo: the reason for this lack of punch is simple, in emphasizing the characters and the back story, Lawton has neglected the demands of the thriller plot here, and the book suffers in that respect.