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.
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.
(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.