Hammer to Fall

Written by John Lawton

Review written by Jon Morgan

Jon Morgan is a retired police Superintendent and francophile who, it is said, has consequently seen almost everything awful that people can do to each other. He relishes quality writing in all genres but advises particularly on police procedure for authors including John Harvey and Jon McGregor. Haunts bookshops both new and secondhand and stands with Erasmus: “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I may buy food and clothes.”

Hammer to Fall
Grove Press
RRP: £16.99
Released: April 02, 2020

This is a Joe Wilderness novel. As usual, Joe Wilderness is in trouble, whether it be through his post war, Four Power-ruled Berlin smuggling rackets, his later activities as a spy, working for his father-in-law, a ‘C’ type character, being hauled before a select committee for losing a Soviet spy on a Berlin bridge spy-exchange, he is always in trouble.

He is still a Flight Sergeant - nominally at least -  utterly incapable of tact and diplomacy, instead a devotee of ‘talking truth to power’, he is duly exiled to the ostensibly dull and boring cold war wastes of Finland to keep him out of the way. Inevitably, he finds more trouble, or does it find him?

The people and contacts he has made, whether in the KGB, MI6, CIA or simply the various underworlds of Europe, over half a lifetime of spying and sailing hugely close to the wind, reappear throughout the book and the account of the abortive Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia are beautifully nuanced and heartbreakingly recounted.

Fans will welcome the return of the ever talented Nell as aide to Willy Brandt, not yet Chancellor but scheming to become the German leader. Erno Schreiber the forger, a Jewish survivor, getting old like the rest of us. For me personally the return of the Troy family and their not insignificant part in the later part of the novel is an absolute joy.

It is very difficult to summarise the plot of a Lawton novel as it jumps around in time and geography but suffice it to say that you will enjoy every single one of Joe Wilderness’s scrapes as this most humane (well apart from the people he has killed) and principled, (in his own terms at least) yet basically, crooked, of spies wends his way towards the end of a book which leaves you begging for more and wondering, in the light of the ending, whether there is in fact to be any more at all!

A new Lawton is a thing greatly to be desired,  to misquote someone or other. I discovered him quite a few years ago and devoured the lot. His brand of historical crime / spy fiction is almost unparalleled and is only equalled, I think, by the late Patrick O’Brian for sheer historical accuracy and by Edward Wilson who writes in a similar field. Those of you who like your fiction based firmly in historical fact, with walk-on parts from the great and the good of the age, scattered with literary, political and cultural references and frequently hilarious to boot, are in for a real treat.

Mr .Lawton, I appreciate the research that it takes to get the detailed picture of the 40’s 50’s and 60’s  spot-on, but please do not leave us waiting too long. This book, and its predecessors are such a valuable tonic in these dark times.

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