THE UNFORTUNATE ENGLISHMAN by John Lawton

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(Berlin Wall)

John Lawton is perhaps one of the best practitioners of the art of Cold War noir.  He has written two separate series that deal with historical events behind the Iron Curtain and other areas and each has a scintillating plot that reeks of historical probability.  The third installment of Lawton’s Joe Wilderness series, THE UNFORTUNATE ENGLISHMEN is an excellent example of this successful genre.  The novel is set in the early 1960s with Nikita Khrushchev master of the Soviet Union in competition for the hearts and minds of third world countries with John F. Kennedy.  In England MI6 is growing concerned about Soviet nuclear capability as are the Americans.

The story unfolds with a return to post war Berlin when former MI6 operative Joe Wildnerness accidently shoots a woman who is involved with a plot to smuggle a nuclear physicist out of East Berlin to send her to newly created state of Israel.  Wilderness is arrested and is freed by the West German authorities through the intervention of Alec Berne-Jones, an MI6 fixture for years, who happens to be Wilderness’ father-in-law.  In return for his freedom, Wilderness agrees to rejoin MI6.  Further, Lawton introduces Bernard Forbes Campbell Alleyn, a British Squadron Leader who is shot down over Silesia in March, 1963, captured and finally liberated by the Russians.  The NKVD, never would never miss an opportunity, takes the body of Alleyn which they have recovered and use his identity and substitute an agent, Leonoid L’vovich Liubimov to infiltrate the British Defense establishment.

British Intelligence has its own plans to infiltrate the Soviet Defense apparatus.  It seems that their entire Russian operation has been rolled by a treasonous spy by the name of George Blake, who of course had ties to the Cambridge Five.  MI6 decides to develop an “out of the box” agent, Geoffrey Masefield, an expert in metallurgy who suffers from low self-esteem, but had delusions that he could be a successful spy.  The story that is concocted deals with idium, a rare metal that Masefield, posing as an industrial representative will try and purchase in Moscow.  The goal is to gain Soviet interest in Masefield which would allow him to visit certain sites that might be of interest.  Lawton’s development of Masefield’s character and spy ability is classic and his adventures in Russia become a core of the novel.  Masefield develops a relationship with Tanya Dmitrievna Tsitikova his “Russian watcher,” of course a KGB spy, as well as Professor of Physics Grigory Grigoryevich Matsekyolyev of the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute, who also is a KGB spy, which makes for interesting scenes and dialogue.

Lawton’s novel is presented in layers.  First, introducing the major characters and their possible relationship to the world of intelligence.  Second, developing each character fully, and lastly tying them together in an intricate plot that attracts the readers complete attention.  While doing so Lawton integrates historical events, concepts, and figures that provide the novel with an air of accuracy when applied to the course of the Cold War.  Events that are easily recognizable are the Kennedy-Khrushchev meeting in Vienna, the U2 Incident, the building of the Berlin Wall, trading of spies, among others.  The realism that is evident does at times seems at times to be a tad far fetched as is evidences by Wilderness’ meeting with Khrushchev on the western side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall in late September, 1961.  But to Lawton’s credit his sarcasm papers over several situations as his somewhat dark humor presides.

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Lawton presents all the clichés associated with the world of spies through the character of Masefield.  Further, the reader gets a sense of Moscow during the Cold War with the lines for poor quality goods, the black market, overcrowded and run down housing, and the ever present KGB which seems to be everywhere.  Other important characters play important roles.  Wilderness’s wife, Judy, a saucy BBC producer, and daughter of her husband’s boss tries to keep her husband on track.  Tom Radley is an incompetent British MI6 Station Chief in Berlin who makes a series of errors, Nell Burkhardt who was close with Wilderness after the war and finds herself running a refugee camp, the Marooned Centre in Berlin in the early 1960s, Frank Spoleta, a self-indulgent CIA operative who seems to alienate everyone he encounters, among others.

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(President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev)

British intelligence chiefs are in a quandary as to how to further employ Masefield.  Wilderness is extremely skeptical in extending Masefield’s leash, so he can try and penetrate the Soviet Defense Ministry further.  On the other hand, Radley, the Berlin Chief wants to provide his agent carte blanche.  The result is that Radley’s view is put forth leading to disastrous consequences and his removal from his position.  At this point the novel takes on an exceptionally serious hue as M16 officials, Wilderness, and his father-in-law must change course in order to contain the intelligence gaffe, and deal with the fallout that may foster more drastic Soviet actions.

Lawton, as per usual has written an exciting Cold War mystery, with strong character development, the ability to integrate the unusual into his dialogue and story line, and take the reader back and forth from post war Berlin to the machinations of the 1960s.  For those who enjoy David Downing, Olen Steinhauer, Philip Kerr, or Luke McCallin, they will find Lawton to be equal to, if not a step up in his approach to Cold War espionage.  Lawton is a great read, no matter what book of his you might pick up, so enjoy.

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(Berlin Wall, upon completion)
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LIE IN THE DARK by Dan Fesperman

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(Sarajevo during the Yugoslav Civil War-1990s)

The names Slobadan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, and Franjo Tudman probably have long receded from our minds.  Perhaps places like Srebrenica, Racak, Banja Luka, the sites of massacres during the 1990s Yugoslav civil war might jog your memory, if not Dan Fesperman’s novel, LIE IN THE DARK explores the terrors and murder associated with that dark time concentrating on Sarajevo.  The story will take you back to a period of intolerance, ethnic cleansing, and wonderment about the depths of evils that people succumb to.

Fesperman sets the tone of his novel from the outset as homicide investigator, Vlado Petric observes the early morning grave digging crew unearthing bodies that were victims of shelling and sniper fire the previous day.  His observations go directly to the absurdity of war as he describes grave digging during a period of genocide, the continuous cycle of snipers and shelling as almost normal vocations.  Sarajevo and its environs presented a universe of slaughter, death, and destruction which was the daily norm for the city.  It is a story dealing with human depravity, treachery, and ethnic cleansing among Serbs, Croats, and Moslems.  To what end was the glory of this national ideal, a belief resting on genocide with groups like the Chetniks, the Ustasha, and others committing murder daily.  In this environment Petric believed that what he did made a difference, but his rationalization did not always protect him from the reality of this brutal civil war.

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(Siege of Sarajevo)

Petric was Catholic and a Croat who had sent his wife and daughters to Germany to escape the civil war, a conflict where the Serbs were bent on leveling Sarajevo layer upon layer if they could not capture it.  Fesperman’s description of the morass of the civil war places the reader amid the carnage that was Sarajevo.  During the shelling Petric tried to maintain his sanity by painting miniature soldiers from diverse historical periods, an occupation that became his therapy.  Petric’s secondary therapy was police work, investigating murders amidst the war raging around him.  A world where the paucity of food, supplies and the necessities of life became a battle of scavenging, barter, and other strategies to deal with the black market on which their lives depended.

The novel centers on the murder of Esmir Vitas, the Chief of the Ministry of the Special Police.  Petric is placed in charge of the investigation as he is seen as not being tainted by the war, which made him palatable to United Nations bureaucrats.  Petric pursues a standard approach to his investigation, but he soon runs into road blocks forcing him to stretch police procedures to their limits.  Vitas’ murder goes deeper than meets the eye after Petric conducts a few interviews, and takes the investigation into Sarajevo’s underworld of gangs, war lords, and government and United Nations officials who have their own agendas and cannot be trusted.

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(a woman risks her life for food in Sarajevo)

Fesperman presents a parallel track in the novel as he describes the dehumanizing nature of the war, and how the ongoing fighting affects people’s daily lives.  For the civilian population there is no such thing as a casual stroll.  If you went out for food, desperate from hunger you took your life into your own hands, and most likely you would become a target for a sniper.  Fesperman spends an inordinate amount of time presenting the lunacy of war, but he does provide glimpses into the bygone age when life was normal, but boys playing basketball off a bent rim with sniper fire all around is a bit disconcerting to categorize as normal.  Petric, like others has difficulty coping with the separation from his family as he realizes he does not know his daughter after two years of being apart following her first birthday.  He can speak by telephone for a brief time monthly, but this just heightens his anguish.

Perhaps Fesperman’s most interesting character is Milan Glavas, a white haired individual with a hacking cough who was an expert in Yugoslav art and antiquities from World War II to the 1990s.  Petric learned from Glavas about the lists of artifacts and other objects that had been stolen since the war.  The recovery of objects from the Nazis led to a black market trade that disseminated art works throughout Yugoslavia and other countries.  Glavas had gone to Germany at the end of the war to investigate and he became a wealth of knowledge concerning the location of these items.  A transfer file had been created which had been destroyed in a fire, but Glavas supposedly was the only source for that information.  The novel takes on a different tact as Glavas, “the curator of the world’s most scattered collection.  The shepherd, if you will, of all of [Yugoslavia’s] wandering lambs,” is introduced.   It seems the black market trade, the role of certain military officials, bureaucrats, and United Nations representatives is greatly involved, and the question is how does Vitas’ murder fit into the main plot. What results is a fascinating story were by a senile woman, a reluctant prostitute, and an English reporter play prominent roles.

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Fesperman is masterful story teller with excellent command of the historical information that makes this novel believable.  Fesperman is not your typical novelist as he has constructed the netherworld of art seizures and recovery from World War II.  He explores how items are smuggled, and the lengths that some go to enrich themselves from this illegal trade.  For some the story might be far-fetched, but seen in the context of the 1990s in Yugoslavia, it is an accurate setting.  I have read a few Fesperman’s later novels including, THE PRISONER OF GUANTANAMO and THE WARLORD’S SON, and LIE IN THE DARK begins a pattern of excellence that is followed in all of his later books.  Fesperman has become one of my favorite practitioners of historical “mystery” fiction, and his gripping style and character development should attract a wide audience.

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(Sarajevo during 1990s Yugoslav Civil War)