The Girl In Berlin

girl in berlinSo 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.

20 thoughts on “The Girl In Berlin

  1. Your review reminds me a bit of novels such as The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. Lots of atmosphere and intrigue and wondering whom to trust. As I mentioned to you, I’ve just “gotten into” spy novels and will try picking this one up at the library. I find that following your bookish advise has never served me ill – so it’s on my list. Don’t you just love discovering a genre you never knew you liked?

    • Grad, I’ve been having the best time with it. The novels have been so much fun. I am a huge fan of Philip Marlowe – what a stylist Raymond Chandler was! And I’d love to read more Dashiell Hammett. Doing this reading reminded me I’d never read Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories, either. As ever, a bunch of reading just produced an even longer tbr list!

  2. Is this her genre or are the other novels different? It’s interesting how many writers are exploring that decade immediately after the Second World War at the moment. I wonder why? Having lived through at least the latter half of it it really wasn’t that memorable.

    • Apparently the other two novels are both about spies, too, and one review I read said that the novel that precedes this one is better read first. As for the decade after WW2, I think the era of austerity is intriguing now to a Britain supposedly cutting back – the 50s did not look like life now, though. But it’s a good question – I always wonder why any historical writers is interested in a previous era, what fantasies and fears it offers.

  3. This sounds interesting, but is still on order at the local library. They do seem to have an earlier book of hers called War Damage. I have read A Foreign Country, which was on your list, but will wait to see what you say about it.

    • Oh Bookboxed, eek! The Charles Cummings was one that I didn’t have time for. I want to read it anyway, so I’ll pick it up asap and then we’ll have an email chat about it, yes? Well, and I’ll probably review it here, too, if that’s better. Sorry!

      • Not to worry. It was a good page-turner and an enjoyable read, but I did keep wondering what another writer might have made of it, especially the mother-son relationship and the use of impersonation. Won’t say more as I might give away too much.

  4. Thsi sounds not bad at all although its not a time period I like much, the whole Cold War is not something that interests me but it seems very well written.

    • Yes, it WAS a really well-written novel, and the ending was particularly good. Which pleased me as I get annoyed when thrillers or other kinds of crime tail off weakly at the end!

  5. I’m (still) reading this now–agree it is a classy story indeed. I’ll read your post in full when I finish–so glad you mentioned it and gave me that little nudge (as though I need one…) to finally pick it up!

    • I’m really glad to know you’re enjoying it! It’s not a particularly quick read, I found, so I’m not surprised if you’re still going. You can’t rush that one! Looking forward loads to your review whenever you’re ready to post it.!

  6. It appears from the book covers that all female spies must be licensed to kill…in heels?

    And, perhaps I’m affectionately biased to the UK, but could you say if the Brits do the spy novel best?

    • Heh, you’re right – heels and little tailored suits featured heavily! Bless you for the lovely bias, but I’m wracking my brains to think of any spy novels I’ve read from outside the UK. Ok, just had a peek at wikipedia for American spy novels and they remind me there’s Robert Ludlum novels and Daniel Silva novels (which Grad has been reading and loving, now I recall the name). I haven’t read them! I shall have to move to an international perspective next year and do this again!🙂

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