Alex Meier, a German Jew who escaped to the United States before the Holocaust, is ejected from the United States for being a Communist during the post-World War II trials. A famous author, he is invited back to East Berlin to help re-establish German culture. Unluckily for him, the CIA sees in him a unique opportunity to learn more about the political maneuverings and intrigues of the Russians in East Berlin. Thrown into the deep end, an amateur spy in an increasingly dangerous environment, he struggles to survive and return to his son in the States (and safety).
Cold War-era Berlin acts as a gloomy, decaying, and scary backdrop for this spy adventure. The politics, the secrets, the betrayals, and the hardships of life in the war-torn city come to life as Alex makes his way between marks, handlers, and betrayers. In this Berlin, favors from those in power could mean having lipstick, or it could mean not getting caught up in the net of a Communist purge. Being a spy, not unsurprisingly, means doing Bad Things in order to survive.
Alex’s memories are mixed in with his narration of the present, without any road signs to indicate the changes. You might think that this would be confusing and difficult to follow, since the times are not explicitly distinguished, but the memories and current events are mixed so seamlessly that flow is never interrupted. In fact, I loved this. The narration is so very well done, all from Alex’s perspective, and with the mixed-in memories it really feels like I was in his head. The immediacy made everything feel more vivid, as though I were living it with Alex instead of reading about it.
As a reader, it would be entirely possible to anticipate the way the clues fit together, but the book will also compel more passive readers. The pacing is not even, with some parts high-octane and others unleaded – but I was just as interested in the descriptions of intrigue and the memories, as I was in the car chases, assassination attempts, and life-or-death lies.
Some spy stories involve the long game, and that’s how I thought this story would be – cerebral and slow. Instead, this spicy tale is more in the style of Ian Fleming. Alex Meier is no James Bond, which in a way makes his life as a spy even more impressive. While Alex starts his life in Berlin almost naive, he is not stupid. Watching his thinking patterns change was fascinating, and one question I am left with is: Is Mal Reynolds right when he suggests that the only way to beat evil sometimes is to become it? When you’ve willingly done some of the things Alex does in order to survive, does it change you forever?
Fans of James Bond and MI-5 (Spooks, to the Brits), or of spy stories in general, will no doubt enjoy Leaving Berlin. Get absorbed in this adventure – you won’t regret it.
*Advance copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Everyone knows James Bond (I don’t think that’s to broad a statement, do you?). As in the Daniel Craig re-boot, the stories begin with Casino Royale.
City of Shadows takes place in 1922 Berlin, not long after the Great War. Set in the same gloomy post-war urban environment full of hardship, it has a similar feel. No spies here, though – instead, a murder mystery and the mystery of Grand Duchess Anastasia.
The Red Magician is a bit different, in that it is a fantastical tale about a young girl whose childhood friendship with a magician influences the course of her life. She is Jewish, and grows up in Eastern Europe at the time of the Holocaust and World War II.