Then We Take Berlin: A Novel

Then We Take Berlin: A Novel

by John Lawton

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“A stylish spy thriller” of postwar Berlin—the first in a thrilling new series from the acclaimed author of the Inspector Troy Novels (TheNew York Times Book Review).
John Wilfrid Holderness—aka Joe Wilderness—was a young Cockney cardsharp surviving the London Blitz before he started crisscrossing war-torn Europe as an MI6 agent. With the war over, he’s become a “free-agent gumshoe” weathering Cold War fears and hard-luck times. But now he’s being drawn back into the secret ops business when an ex-CIA agent asks him to spearhead one last venture: smuggle a vulnerable woman out of East Berlin.
Arriving in Germany, Wilderness soon discovers he’s being played as a pawn in a deadly game of atomic proportions. To survive, he must follow a serpentine trail through his own past, into the confidence of an unexpected lover, and go dangerously deep into a black market scam the likes of which Berlin has never seen.
The author of the acclaimed Inspector Troy Novels, “Lawton’s gift for atmosphere, memorable characters and intelligent plotting has been compared to John le Carré. . . . Never mind the comparisons—Lawton can stand up on his own, and Then We Take Berlin is a gem” (The Seattle Times).
“[The Joe Wilderness novels] are meticulously researched, tautly plotted, historical thrillers in the mold of . . . Alan Furst, Phillip Kerr, Eric Ambler, David Downing and Joseph Kanon.” —The Wall Street Journal
“[It] will thrill readers with an interest in WWII and the early Cold War era.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A wonderfully complex and nuanced thriller.” —Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802193087
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 09/03/2013
Series: Joe Wilderness Series , #1
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 122,871
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

John Lawton is the author of ten novels, including Second Violin, Flesh Wounds, and Bluffing Mr. Churchill. His thriller Black Out won a WH Smith Fresh Talent Award, A Little White Death was named a New York Times Notable Book, and his latest novel A Lily of the Field was named one of the best thrillers of the year by Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times. At the moment he lives in Derbyshire, England, but can often be found (or lost) elsewhere.

Read an Excerpt


First We Take Manhattan

"The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world." F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby 1925


West Berlin: May 1963

Christina Hélène von Raeder Burkhardt had too many names, so was known simply as Nell. She was attending the first of her twice weekly meetings with the mayor to agree an itinerary for the impending visit of President Kennedy.

"McGeorge Bundy gives me a headache."

"You don't get on with Bundy, Nell?"

"I get on very well with Bundy — one of the best —"

"Or the brightest ..."

"Whichever ... I get on well with him, but it does seem to me that his job is simply to say 'no.' Whatever I suggest he says cannot or should not be done."

"Such as?"

"I suggested a visit to Bernauer Straße ... where the wall began, as it were ... and where it claimed its first victims."

"Not a bad idea."

"Bundy won't let the president do it — instead we get JFK's sister. She'll visit Bernauer Straße."

"We agreed to that?"

"Of course — it's better than nothing."

"Nell ... what is it you want?"

It was a generous question. Mayor Brandt had his agenda for this visit — everyone had, from the man who swept the streets to the Chief of Police — yet still he was asking to hear hers.

"I want President Kennedy to visit all the Berlins — all the Berlins I know as a Berliner. Berlin new and Berlin old. I would ask that he visit the city we rebuilt ... to look at the Kurfürstendamm as well as the Reichstag ruins. I would ask that he see and be seen. I would ask that he visit Berlin West and Berlin East."

"The East?"

"Through Checkpoint Charlie. He has every right to pass through."

"Imagine the embarrassment when he's asked to produce his passport."

"Would they dare?"

"I don't know. Nell, have you actually suggested a visit to the Soviet Sector?"

"Oh yes. Ages ago."


"And Bundy said it would be the one idea he'd never put before Kennedy."

"The Russians never pass up a chance for a stunt. And if we did that we'd be pulling a stunt too. And the only point to a stunt is not to be upstaged. Going East would give them every opportunity to upstage us. And if we don't go East ... if we stay 'home' and peer over the wall they'll still stage something. There'll be an 'incident' of some sort. Imagine. Kennedy waves to Berliners through the Brandenburg Gate and Khrushchev waves back."

Nell smiled at the image. So often Willy Brandt cracked a joke only as a prelude to the deadly serious.

"Everything is ambivalent," Brandt was saying. "Kennedy visits a Berlin renewed and a Berlin divided. A Berlin defiant and a Berlin besieged. Everything about this visit is double-edged. Except this ... it's going to be the biggest public spectacle Germany has seen since the Nuremburg rallies. And a Nuremburg rally is the last thing it can ever look like. The world will be watching. Nothing should remind them of the Reich. Ideally, this visit should pass without 'incident.' The world will be watching Berlin."



He'd been emphatic.


London: May 1963

John Wilfrid Holderness had had many names. John to his parents — naturally as they had chosen the name, and indeed had had him christened so in a Stepney church in the autumn of 1927 — Wilf to his schoolmates — Joe to his old RAF pals ... and Wilderness to his women.

He would not have answered the phone that night. It was gone ten, they were in bed, they'd made love and he was sleeping it off. His wife wasn't. She answered.

She nudged him.

"Wilderness. It's Frank Spoleto."

Wilderness pretended to be asleep, but she wasn't having any of it.

She nudged him again.

"Can't be Frank," he said through a yawn. "Last I heard he went back to Washington. Tell whoever it is to fuck off."

One hand curled around the mouthpiece to muffle their voices.

"It's Frank. He's in New York, calling you person to person. It must be costing him a packet!"

"Person to person? What's that?"

"Bastard to bastard. Here, take the bloody phone!"

Spoleto's voice boomed at him, more like five feet than five thousand miles away.

"Joe. You old bugger!"

It was one of Spoleto's delights from his time in London to use anglicisms, often at the wrong moment — his confusion between twit and twat had caused many a blush.

"Frank? It's nearly midnight."

"It's ten of eleven, Joe. Clock on my desk has faces for London, Paris and New York —"

"Sounds like a bottle of cheap perfume to me, Frank."

"And there's a barman two blocks away getting ready to serve me my first martini of the weekend."

"Don't let me keep you."

Spoleto laughed loudly at this. Wilderness held the phone away from his ear.

"Joe, I need to see you."

"No problem, I'll be here."

"I need to see you in New York."

Wilderness didn't know why, but it was like a surge of adrenaline, hearing Spoleto say New York. He sat up. Switched the phone from one ear to the other, looked around for his wife, heard the sound of water running in the bathroom.

"Er ... say again Frank."

"I need you here. I've booked you out on the one o'clock Pan Am to Idlewild on Tuesday. Tickets, and everything else you need to get here will be at the embassy on Monday morning. First class. All paid for. Hell, I even got you a room at the Gramercy."

"You couldn't afford the Waldorf?"

The only New York hotel of which he had ever heard.

He held the phone a moment or two after Spoleto had hung up, if only because it was never obvious with Frank when a conversation was over — it was over when Frank said it was over, no goodbyes, just his sense of an ending and the clunky silence on the line. He put the phone down, shuffled naked to the bathroom door. Tapped it gently open with his foot.

The wife sat naked on the lavatory, a wad of loo roll in her right hand, poised. Early in their marriage, six or seven years ago, he had to get over the fact that she would walk in while he pissed, and didn't give a damn if he walked in on her. He chalked it up to their different backgrounds — the public nature of a private education (hers) versus a home which knew no privacy (his) — the only door with a lock had been the loo, and the loo had been out in the yard. He'd hardly ever not had a room to himself, and only at sporadic moments in his life had he ever been in dorm or barracks, but a room he could call his own (in the sense that if you put an object down in said room, it would still be in the same place the next time you looked, in the sense that you could lock the door and not be asked why) that had been rare, that had been precious and he'd given that up to marry Judy. And given it up gladly.

She blotted herself, flushed the loo and settled in the bath.

"What did the bastard want now?"

"That's a tough one. He wants me in New York next week."

"That kind of tough I can live with. It's not as though you're a jetsetter is it? New York on expenses. Yeah — sounds really tough."

"How did you know it was on expenses?"

"Would you even be thinking about it if it weren't?"

Wilderness settled on the edge of the bath.

"I just thought ... out of the blue after all this time ..."

"It's three or four years isn't it? Can't be much more. The two of you came back from Helsinki together."

"I just thought ... this wouldn't have anything to do with Alec would it?"

"Get in the bath, Wilderness. You'll feel better and you'll sleep better."

"Er ..."

Just a grunt. Non-committal, out of nothing more than tiredness.

"Just get in. You know what you're like when you're too tired to sleep. Those nights when your legs twitch. You'll feel better. Trust me."

He slipped in at the blunt end, the rounded knobs on the taps cold against his back. Her toes found their way to his armpits. Her nipples peeked at him through the foam.

"Trusting you isn't the problem. It's trusting Frank."

"And my father?"

"Nah, I was just asking. Alec's been good to me — I didn't mean ..."

"Didn't mean what? Pa's been good to you. Of course he has. But do I detect a hint of too much of a good thing?"

It was a moment to sink beneath the water and blow bubbles at her, but only Hollywood had baths big enough for that.

She took the unspoken words from his silent lips. Pushed her breasts together and made an irresistible waterfall flow between them.

"Coochie coo," she said, and he knew he was off the hook. Subject changed.


He'd never flown the Atlantic before. He'd flown plenty of times. His years in the RAF had seen to that. He'd scrounged flights almost like hitching car rides. But he'd never done a long haul. It was the stuff of Sunday colour supplement advertising. "International" was a positive in the adman's world. It implied you were beyond the pettiness of nations, that you were post post-war, that you moved in a world peopled by the likes of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, that you sat in the VIP lounge at airports, and had a bag emblazoned with the name of the airline. Things like that were coveted. It was chic to be seen with a cheap plastic hold-all marked BOAC, chic-er still to be seen with the one Wilderness now had bearing the Pan Am logo.

Frank hadn't been mean with him. Whatever Frank's faults — lies, tricks, half-truths — cheapness was not one of them. First class all the way. The hostess handed him a package as soon as he took his seat, saying "A present from Mr. Spoleto."

Inside were two books and a note in Frank's hand saying, "Don't get too bored."

He looked at the titles. The Ipcress File. King Rat. An hour out of Heathrow he abandoned the former in favour of the latter. Too damn difficult. Fifty pages into the steamy jungle of King Rat he fell asleep. Woke, read another fifty and napped again. When he awoke the second time, the plane was over Newfoundland. Canada, America ... New York.

As the Fasten Seat Belt sign came on, the man sitting next to him spoke. Overweight, balding, brimming with bonhomie, capable — Wilderness thought — of rattling on for ages. But, they'd exchanged half a dozen pleasantries over the meal several hours ago, and then the man had slept the uninterrupted sleep of a seasoned traveller sedated on free champagne and Southern Comfort.

"First time?" he asked. A question left over from the simple pleasantries that he hadn't asked first time around.

"Is it that obvious?"

"You get so you can tell. Just the way a guy looks around. The way he talks to the hostesses."

"Too nervous?"

"Too polite. Too grateful. We paid for all the stuff they thrust at us."

"Or," said Wilderness. "Somebody paid."

"Right. Who'd ever pay for their own ticket? Ought to be down as one of the rules in the game of life. Play it right and somebody else will always pay."

It was a disappointment. For some reason, doubtless a stupid reason, he'd expected to be able to see skyscrapers the second they stepped out of the terminal. There were none, they were way out on Long Island in a big, flat nothing. Idlewild seemed to be the right name. He strained towards the western horizon, hoping at least for a glimpse of Manhattan.

He stood next to the fat man in the queue for Checker cabs. Every one that pulled up made him feel a mile nearer to the city. A fleck of deep, warm yellow somehow just blown his way. They were at least six places away from getting a cab, when a tall, black man in a grey suit approached and asked if he were Mr. Holderness.

"Sorry to be late, sir. An accident on the expressway. Mr. Spoleto's car is waiting. We'll have you in Manhattan in no time at all."

Wilderness knew he should offer the fat man a ride, but he wanted to be selfish, to enter the city without the voice of experience jabbering in his ear. Manhattan was worth approaching in innocence. Find out for himself. He just shook his hand and said, "Thanks for the motto. I'll treasure it."

"Motto? What motto?"

"Play it right and somebody else will always pay."

"Oh that."

He was still chuckling at his own wit as the Negro picked up the suitcase and led Wilderness across the lane to a Cadillac. A big car. A ridiculous car. Low-slung, fat, covered in chrome and sporting huge rear fins. It reminded him of a beached shark. Cadillac Deville Sedan, the driver replied, when Wilderness asked.

"Frank's car?"

"Frank's car, this year. Frank's car for now."

"And next?"

"Whatever the boss takes a shine to. I driven five models in three years."

"Does Frank like to drive?"

"Naw. Frank likes to be driven."

Wilderness sat in the back, feeling he should have sat in the front, but the sense of protocol was palpable. The man drove, the man was paid to drive. The front seat was his. He doubted Frank ever sat in the front.

Manhattan loomed up so quickly it caught him unawares. Suddenly above the one- and two-storey buildings either side of the road there it was, shining pinnacles against a western sun, the sun all but eclipsed by the spire on the Chrysler Building, a corona of light sending the skyscraper into chiaroscuro. A black spike in a red sky.

Crossing the Queensboro Bridge he was entering something akin to a dream. He'd always dreamed of cities. He'd always fallen in love with cities — mostly because he'd never known anything else. Childhood trips to the seaside had palled before he was ten — how many sandcastles can you build for some bigger kid to knock down? And rarer trips out into the Essex countryside to visit great aunts — relics from another century, all aprons and safety pins, a generation and a gender that seemed always to be dusted with flour or wiping their hands — left him awkward and speechless, blushing as his resemblance to Uncle Harold or Cousin Alfred was rattled off, baffled as they wished for him a better fate than Cousin Tom — reduced to a red mist at Ypres — or Great-Uncle Brinsley — a petty thief, an incompetent burglar, his life wasted in and out of Queen Victoria's prisons.

That was the beauty of a city. You entered anonymously. Who you were, with luck, with will, was who you could make yourself. You were not the sum parts, the flawed arithmetic of your own genealogy.

They crossed several avenues, Wilderness wound down the window trying to see the names, but they seemed to be only numbers. Then in rapid succession, they crossed Lexington, Park and swung right on Madison to pull into the kerb a dozen blocks further on.

It wasn't quite a skyscraper. It was thirty or forty floors. Bigger than anything London had to show. A long row of brass plates ran down each mock-classical column either side of the revolving door. The driver led Wilderness so quickly through the door and the lobby that he could take in next to nothing. They took the lift to the twenty-first floor, and as the doors opened a glass wall appeared, bearing the stencil "Carver, Sharma, and Dunn."

It was tempting to ask when or if Frank's name would ever appear, but he didn't.

Reception was glass and leather. Glass-topped tables, Barcelona studded leather chairs, ashtrays on stilts that spirited fag ash away like a child's spinning top at the press of a button. Furniture than defied suspension or the basic laws of physics to hang in space. It all screamed modern and it could scream all it liked. Wilderness was listening.

What screamed loudest hung on the wall, filling a space about seven feet by three between the receptionist's desk and the door to the inner sanctum. He would not have known what it was but for his wife, but then that was true of so many things. He knew what he knew because Judy told him. He had no shame about it. If she was a willing teacher he was a willing pupil and it had been that way since the day they met the best part of ten years ago.

This, and he had no doubts, was a Jackson Pollock. The kind of painting, the kind of artist to be featured on a highbrow BBC arts programme like Monitor, on which Judy had often worked, and to be described by the critics as cutting edge or possibly postmodern (a phrase which made no sense to Wilderness) and as "looks like something my three-year-old would do" and "what a load of old bollocks" by the general public.

Just below it on the wall was a small typed label: "Early Autumn. October 1955."

It was tempting to touch. The kind of thing that would get him thrown out of an art gallery, but this wasn't an art gallery, this was ... whatever it was ... Frank's office selling whatever it was Frank sold.

He ran the index and big fingers of his right hand along a spinal cord of red, a raised weal that ran almost the length of the painting.


Excerpted from "Then We Take Berlin"
by .
Copyright © 2013 John Lawton.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Then We Take Berlin 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Then We Take Berlin is an exceptional historical thriller that is also a deeply moving story of post World War II Germany - the destructive power of war on humans and places and all that was considered normal. As a thriller it is excellent with a new character, Joe Wilderness, taking centre stage along with some old friends from the Inspector Troy series showing up. Bravo Mr. Lawton! This is an outstanding novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed this so much!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago