So it’s spy novels all this week and first up is a very classy example of the genre indeed, Elizabeth Wilson’s The Girl in Berlin. Set in 1951, in the period of confusion and mistrust that followed the disappearance of two British spies, Burgess and Maclean it’s a novel about ambiguity and about how hard it is to distinguish friends from enemies.
Colin Harris is a Communist sympathiser who has returned unexpectedly from Berlin to visit his old friends, Alan and Dinah Wentworth (who just happens to work at the Courtauld for Anthony Blunt). Colin has a murky past with a murder trial from which he escaped free but besmirched, and his presence in the UK is a cause for suspicion amongst the authorities. In a sense they’re right; Colin has fallen in love with a German, Frieda Schroder, who he wants to marry and bring back with him, and Frieda is not at all what she seems. But at the same time, Colin is a bit of a pathetic character, an idealist without clout, clumsy and awkward, the sort of person who always gets on the wrong side of others without really meaning to.
Jack McGovern is a member of Special Branch who is tasked to find out what Colin is up to by a real spy, the suave and enigmatic Miles Kingdom. This isn’t really Jack’s sort of thing, though he’d like it to be. He’s a straight man, ethical and honest and – clearly working without enough information from his mentor – completely out of his depth. Before long, Colin Harris has managed to put himself in a compromising situation. He is seen with a German defector, a scientist with a tell-all autobiography in his hands, and only a few hours after this sighting, the corpse of the scientist is found. Soon Kingdom is sending McGovern out to Berlin and into a hotbed of dangerous characters, who seem to be playing both sides for fools. The only people he likes and feels he can trust are Colin and Frieda; is he making a dreadful mistake?
So this is the kind of spy novel, reminiscent of le Carré, in which we move in a fog of uncertainty, unsure who is trustworthy, wondering what everyone is up to. Jack is a plucky amateur, trying to play with the big boys as if he were a professional, and putting his life on the line as a result. The narrative juggles a number of intertwined plot threads and quite a large cast of characters with elegance, and the writing is sharp and atmospheric. My only criticism is that the subplot with the Wentworths, who are both beautifully drawn characters, doesn’t quite shine the way it might. But when the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place, finally, I had nothing but admiration for this clever, engaging novel. I thought it had an excellent denouement, the best of the novels I read for this week, horrifying, harsh and plausible.
One final note: this is a literary novel, a modern piece of noir fiction and reads much better as such; I wouldn’t suggest this is the kind of book to take on a beach. But it really repays careful attention and I’ll certainly be reading her two previous novels on the strength of it.