MORE GREAT READS FOR APRIL, 2016
The Unfortunate Englishman, by John Lawton
Mr Lawton first introduced Joe Wilderness to us in 2013 with ‘Then We Take Berlin’, (see review below) a furiously-paced thriller set in Post War Germany: at that time Joe was a young Cockney chancer – with special abilities, sent to Hamburg as a very junior intelligence officer. Now, twenty years later, he is once again with British Intelligence – but only because it’s the only way he can get out of a German prison for a botched job involving a CIA ‘buddy’ who has proved to be anything but. His former boss, ex Lt. Colonel Burne-Jones is happy to have him ‘back on board’ at MI6; as before he has a particular job in mind well-suited to Joe’s great spying and language talents (not to mention burglary skills) – but should Joe refuse this kind offer to return to the fold, then there is nothing else for it but to leave him languishing in a West German prison for a very long time.
Once again Joe is a Spook, but with age comes experience and he really is exceptional at what he is so reluctant to do – which is to train a British Metallurgist to ferret out information about Soviet Atomic Weapons Complexes on the pretext of purchasing zinc and indium from them. Geoffrey Masefield has plenty of bona fide credentials but Joe senses that Our Geoffrey is more seduced by the romantic fictional dream of being a spy, than the actual nuts and bolts of being one: shouldn’t he have one of those tiny cameras? No? Well, what about a gun at the very least? Spymaster and pupil are at loggerheads and despite all of Joe’s reservations, Our Geoffrey, Secret Agent, is sent off to the Soviet Union to do his worst. Which he does, eventually ending up in Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison.
It gives Joe no pleasure to have to say ‘I told you so’ to Burne-Jones – who is also his father-in-law (yes, twenty years can produce some surprises: Joe is married to the Boss's daughter Judy and has twin daughters, Molly and Joan, whom he thought he would never take to but loves to bits) and now he is faced with a return to Berlin, that city of wrecked opportunities, dreams and promises, there to find the best, safest and easiest way out of the fiasco Our Geoffrey has created – and no-one is more surprised than he to be approached by the Russians themselves: what about a spy swap? With conditions, of course. Aren’t there always? And when Joe hears what those conditions are, the honourable intelligence officer becomes the Artful Dodger once again, with reluctant help from his former henchmen. He has been made an offer he can’t refuse.
Mr Lawton has produced a sequel to ‘Then We Take Berlin’ which (dare I say it?) is even better: most of the characters which delighted the reader in the first book return to entertain again; his plotting is just as fast paced and action-packed and the dialogue is again smart, funny and entirely credible. Mr Lawton has yet to drink from the same flask as John Le Carre, but he is sitting at the same table! FIVE STARS
Then We Take Berlin, by John Lawton
John (known as Joe) 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 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 naïve: 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