Monday, 17 March 2014


Then We Take Berlin, by John Lawton

John (known as Joe) Holderness is a Cockney wide boy, a thief trained to the nth degree by his grandfather Abner, who adopts him when his alcoholic mother is killed by a German bomb whilst enjoying a lunchtime G and T at the local pub.  Joe has many things stacked against him, not least his East End origins and the bestiality of his father, a soldier who returns infrequently from battle to take out the horrors and evil of war on his 13 year old son.  Life, especially during the London blitz would be unendurable were it not for the home of sorts provided by his grandfather, and Joe’s love of reading – the best form of escapism ever.  (And I’m sure every dedicated reader knows that.)  He is a ‘word child’:  he has a gift for languages ; he can imitate successfully any accent;  he is  a boy of ferocious intelligence but devoid of scruples – in short,  he is the perfect apprentice thief.  And he is an apt pupil.
All continues as normal in Joe’s world until Abner has a fatal accident, and necessity dictates a change of address;  the war has come to an end but Joe’s draft papers arrive, and he is sent to the Royal Air Force, there to stir up so much trouble that he is constantly in ‘the glasshouse’ for insubordination – until his many and doubtful talents come to the attention of Lt. Col. Burne-Jones, an intelligence officer who sees in Joe his true calling:  cat burglar and spy for the British Secret Service.  After a crash course in German and Russian, he is despatched to Hamburg, ostensibly as a clerk, but also to check on various citizens who swear they endured six years of the Nazis without becoming one of them.
Germany:  broken country of ruined cities and a vanquished and traumatised population – the perfect breeding ground for rackets and the black market.  Joe the Chancer is in his element.  There is money to be made, quite apart from his clandestine activities on behalf of His Majesty.  He’s as happy as the proverbial pig in shite – and then he meets Nell.
Nell, short for Christina Helene von Raeder Burkhardt, patriotic Berliner and aristocratic German , and at twenty already a victim of tragedy at the hands of the Nazis is trying to atone for the terrible sins of her countrymen, witnessed first hand at Belsen.  She occupies a high moral ground, ultimately inaccessible to Joe the Rogue;  he finds her principled view of the world amusing, strange and na├»ve:  his experience of life has taught him that principles mean nothing – there is only money, and everyone has his price, including himself.
Mr Lawton has given us a gripping read, a searing account of man’s inhumanity to man, and characters that live and breathe on the page.
Joe is the Artful Dodger of the Second World War, endearing, charming, amoral, and bent as a corkscrew.  No good can come of his liaison with Nell, his polar opposite, but the reader hopes until the bitter end that the impossible will happen – this is a novel, after all!  Regardless of the outcome, John Lawton has written a page-turner par excellence:  highly recommended.

A song for the Dying, by Stuart MacBride

As always, I found after starting this story that there was a previous work, ‘Birthdays for the Dead’.  Lots of awful things happened in the first book, including the murder of main protagonist Detective Ash Henderson’s daughters and his imprisonment for the murder of his brother – a frame up:  to say that Ash has had a rough ride is a euphemism of the first order, and at the start of book two there is only one thing on Ash’s mind:  revenge.
As this story unfolded I found myself glad that I had missed Book One:  the various tragedies that Detective Henderson has to live with are almost too horrible for this craven reader to contemplate;  in fact it was all I could do to stop myself from physically recoiling at the gruesomeness of the current plot, let alone roll around in the bloodbath of Plot One – I know, I know, it’s only a story, but I have never been very good at reading about cruelty and sadism, especially when it involves children:  it is then that I wish that I was a fan of Mills and Boon!
Having said that, I must also state that I could not put this book down.
Mr MacBride has created a nightmare landscape in the Scottish city of Oldcastle, a classic battleground of good and evil where the goodies are sometimes worse than those who commit the crimes.  In his long experience Ash sees the new order of PCness and criminals having – and knowing – their ‘rights’ as an unforgivable delay in the capture of bad guys, and a further erosion of the rights of decent people – the victims.  Not that he can do anything about it from Inside, languishing on his trumped-up charges and attending futile meetings of the Parole Board.  Until …..
Until he is suddenly released from Jail by the head of a new crime unit established to find a serial killer of nurses whom everyone thought had disappeared eight years before.  Prior to his misfortune, Ash had had some success at investigating the killings and was known for his ability to think outside the square.  His skills are needed in the latest investigation, for ‘The Inside Man’ has struck again:  Oldcastle is in a panic.
There are more twists and turns to this plot than a pretzel!  I can only admire Mr MacBride’s expertise in keeping all the balls in the air without dropping a single one.  I  found Detective Ash (despite his obvious bitterness and thirst for blood) to be a lot more credible than most of his counterparts in crime fiction.  He is also completely professional, eventually finding the killer – and you’ll never guess, EVER, who it is! – before he goes after the people who put him in prison, which is exactly as it should be.  His reluctant team mates – he is a jailbird, after all – are carefully drawn and individual delights, but if I have an ongoing criticism it is this:  it rains in Oldcastle ALL THE TIME.  Couldn’t the reader have enjoyed a few rays of sunshine as relief from Mr MacBride’s Shakespearean blasted heath?  A little bit of sun never hurt anyone;  as it is, we must rely on the warmth and relief of clever, funny dialogue and gallows humour to light up the gloom, and that’s no bad thing;  in fact in a story like this it is vital.  Highly recommended.   


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