John Lawton is on my top-5 list of contemporary authors, so I was excited when I heard he had created a new protagonist, John Wilfrid Holderness. That sounds like a posh name, but he's known by most people as Joe Wilderness, which is a much better fit.
Joe is a London East End wide boy, a chancer who lives on his wits and guile. That's all the more true when his mother is killed in the Blitz, found dead ensconced on a barstool with her gin still sitting in front of her. Joe's grandfather Abner moves Joe into an attic room at his place in Whitechapel, where Abner lives with his longtime girlfriend (and sometime prostitute) Merle.
Abner teaches Joe everything he knows about burglary and safe-cracking. Joe is a quick study, not just about crime, but books, and observing people. Just because he's smart doesn't mean Joe is lucky, though. Just when all the soldiers and sailors are returning home from World War II, Joe is drafted. He's about to be tossed into the punishment cells for insubordination when he's plucked out by Lieutenant Colonel Burne-Jones, who's seen Joe's IQ score. Burne-Jones sends Joe off to Cambridge to learn Russian and German, and to London for personal tutoring in languages, politics and history.
Of course, Burne-Jones is training Joe to work in military intelligence, but you already figured that out. Off Joe goes to Berlin in 1946. What an amazing place for a wide boy. "It was love at first sight. He and Berlin were made for each other. He took to it like a rat to a sewer." In between intelligence jobs for Burne-Jones, Joe can't resist increasing the stakes in his black market game, which means making ever larger and more dangerous deals, deals that involve crossing over to the Russian sector.
But for Joe, it's not all about sussing out former Nazi bigwigs and scientists by day and smuggling by night. At one of Berlin's nightclubs, famous in the Weimar era for using tabletop telephones and pneumatic tubes so that strangers could propose assignations, Joe meets Christina Helene von Raeder Burckhardt, known by the Brits and Americans as Nell Breakheart. Not because she actually breaks hearts, but because she's so beautiful, inside and out, that they're lining up in hopes of getting their hearts broken. And wouldn't you know, she chooses Joe.
In language so vivid you can see it all in your mind, Lawton recreates postwar Berlin, with its ruined buildings, squalid living quarters created in cellars or apartments with shorn-off walls, crews of women who earn rations by clearing rubble in bucket lines, dirty kids harassing servicemen from the US, Britain, France and Russia for candy bars, the stink of open sewers, fear and despair, and the sweeter scents of money, graft and opportunity. I read a ton of WW2 historical novels and I can't think of another one that does it better.
But the novel isn't all postwar Berlin. It's bookended by the stories of Joe and Nell in the summer of 1963. You know, the summer JFK made his famous visit to Berlin. If there is some of the 1963 plot that is not quite up to snuff (and there is), that takes up a very small proportion of what is a dazzlingly inventive and layered story, packed with fully dimensional characters–––several of whom Lawton fans will recognize from the Frederick Troy novels.
I've often wondered why John Lawton hasn't gained the recognition I firmly believe he deserves. I've come to think it might be because of the book world's compulsion to categorize books and authors into easy genres and sub-genres. Lawton's books are most often classified as mystery and espionage, but neither is accurate. As Lawton once commented, they are "historical, political thrillers with a big splash of romance, wrapped up in a coat of noir." The noir comes in because, as you might have suspected reading about Joe Wilderness, John Lawton likes to write about people on the edge, living in a world of shadowy morality.
If you enjoy authors like Ian McEwan, Philip Kerr, Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd, give this book a try, along with his other novels, especially his haunting 2011 title, A Lily of the Field.
Note: I received a free review e-galley from Netgalley.