Then We Take Berlin

Written by John Lawton

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung


Then We Take Berlin
Grove Press
RRP: £8.99
Released: August 7, 2014
Pbk

John Holderness, the protagonist of John Lawton's new thriller, has various nom-de-plumes and nicknames; some of his friends and acquaintances know that but not even his wife believes him when he tells her his occupation: “I'm MI6's resident cat burglar”. Burgling, let alone MI6, is not half of it.

In some ways like Holderness, John Lawton's novel is multi-faceted; for example, it is almost a stand-alone, except that members of Lawton's Troy family appear, and there is a Jewish tailor that I think I have met before as well. The book opens in New York in 1963, where Sweet Sunday, Lawton's previous standalone was set five years later, but quickly moves to London, going back to Holderness's youth during the blitz. Unlike most of his Troy novels, though, this one does not stay in one period but follows its characters for twenty-odd years.

It is in the blitz that Holderness, lucky for a short time that his brutal father has been mobilized, learns his grandfather's criminal trade, slipping into property unnoticed, seeing through the phoney strength of cheap safes, and pocketing the easily fenced jewels and papers resulting. The war covered a lot of things like that, unfortunately it was also the time when you could not show any sudden wealth: there was no way it could have been earned honestly. Grandfather puts the cash away safely: but when he finally falls through a roof it is not there for the lad.

Holderness is moved on and conscripted, hates square bashing but is lucky to have his high IQ recognised and is sent for training that leaves him time to maintain some of his criminal interests. When his chief in intelligence seconds him to Berlin after the German surrender he can satisfy his officers as he discovers Nazi atomic scientists while also becoming a mainstay of the city's thriving black market. He is, despite his activities, not an unpleasant person, but if you were think of what he does (and Harry Lime must be active about this time, in a similar line) you might remember that the device a plumber drives through blocked drains is called a snake. When the Russians divide the city his underground life becomes even more important.

So what does all this detail do? Partly it does what John Lawton is famous for, it supplies detail, but partly it acts like a cover. The cover is not that taken by Holderness himself but what happens to him, and how. It also provides a rich body of material, in which different elements can repeat themselves, and ends in a superb example of the gun on wall finally going off even while the cold war politics (the story ends on the day President Kennedy made his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech) are revealed to have been a diversion. That shot – you will never have seen it coming.

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