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Then We Take Berlin Hardcover – September 3, 2013


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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Lawton’s superb A Lily of the Field (2010) moved from the 1930s through the immediate postwar era, mainly in London. Here he focuses again on that richly atmospheric wake-of-the-war period, both in London and in Berlin. Joe Wilderness, an East End cat burglar who learned his trade from his grandfather, is drafted into the RAF in 1946 and then quickly taken under the wing of intelligence officer Lieutenant Colonel Burne-Jones, who sees Joe’s special talents as extremely handy in the coming Cold War. That’s fine with Joe, but, meanwhile, Berlin appears to him as the ultimate candy store—a black marketeer’s wet dream—and he sets out with another ­Englishman, an American officer, and a major in the Russian NKVD, to make an illicit fortune from the rubble of the once-grand German city. Their reach exceeds their grasp, of course, and after the scam comes crashing down, Joe is rescued by Burne-Jones but not before losing the love of his life, a German girl, Nell, whose weary idealism stands in sharp opposition to Joe’s cheerful larceny. Bump forward 15 years: Joe is reunited with the American officer, who has another scheme: this time the plan involves smuggling people, not dry goods. Joe goes along, hoping mainly to reconnect with Nell, now a West German diplomat helping to plan President Kennedy’s Berlin visit. Lawton captures both the immediate postwar and midcentury landscapes perfectly, stirring elements of Graham Greene, John le Carré, and the great Ross Thomas’ too-little-known McCorkle and Padillo novels into a superbly well-built Cold War cocktail—bracing, deliriously delicious, but carrying the slightly bitter aftertaste of dreams gone bad. --Bill Ott

Review

—A Publishers Weekly “Big Book” of Fall 2013

“John Lawton’s stylish spy thriller, Then We Take Berlin, is a splendid introduction to John Wilfrid (Wilderness) Holderness, born a Cockney guttersnipe, trained in various criminal enterprises by his grandfather and transformed into a British intelligence operative during World War II. . . .[An] enthralling story of Wilderness’s adventures in espionage and Lawton’s harrowing descriptions of life in the battered nations of Europe in 1945, when the war was over but never seemed to end.”—New York Times Book Review

“Lawton’s gift for atmosphere, memorable characters and intelligent plotting has been compared to John le Carré, but his dry humor also invokes the late Ross Thomas. . . . Never mind the comparisons—Lawton can stand up on his own, and Then We Take Berlin is a gem.”—The Seattle Times

“A dangerous assignment in East Berlin is fraught with complex memories from postwar Europe. . . . A wonderfully complex and nuanced thriller.”—Kirkus Reviews

"Lawton captures both the immediate postwar and midcentury landscapes perfectly, stirring elements of Graham Greene, John le Carré, and the great Ross Thomas' too-little-known McCorkle and Padillo novels into a superbly well-built Cold War cocktail—bracing, deliriously delicious, but carrying the slightly bitter aftertaste of dreams gone bad."—Booklist (starred review)

“This intelligent first in a new series from Lawton (A Lily of the Field and six other Inspector Troy thrillers) opens on the eve of President Kennedy’s 1963 Berlin visit, but the real meat lies in the compelling backstory of John Wilford Holderness, an East London Cockney who joins the RAF in 1946. . . . A wonderfully written and generally wise book that will thrill readers with an interest in WWII and the early Cold War era.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Absolute dynamite in a trench coat . . . Don’t miss this one!”—I Love A Mystery Newsletter

“A thriller that is sure to have any fan of John Le Carré’s Smiley novels gripped.”—Crime Fiction Lover

“[Then We Take Berlin] is a stand-alone novel outside [Lawton’s] wonderful ‘Troy’ series, set in Berlin in 1963 . . . it is extremely good.”—Deadly Pleasures

“A very captivating read.”—Fantasy Book Critic
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (September 3, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802121969
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802121967
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.5 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #370,441 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

A great thriller with enough twists of character and plot to keep everyone guessing.
mature reader
A disjointed plot, characters which come and go for no good reason, a lack of historical detail and a weak ending make the book below the standard I'd expected.
Michael A. Hassan
This is a great historical novel with the author explaining what is actual history and what is fabricated for the sake of the novel.
Paul Rooney

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By P. Taylor on September 10, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Some years ago I taught creative writing to middle schoolers. We had a lot of fun, with few rules. One of the rules was, if your character gets herself in a mess, have her resolve it in a believable fashion. (Most wanted her to wake up, and "It was only a dream.") Guess my rule is outmoded now, as it seems the last few books I have read, just stop, and leave the character in the "mess" she created. This book followed the same pattern, as other reviewers have complained.

With that bit of whine out of the way, don't miss this book! Lawton is a clever, meticulous writer. His Inspector Troy series had about dried up, and now we have the gifted Joe Wilderness, a trained thief, to help British Intelligence sort out the results of World War II, primarily in Germany. Joe is as refreshing and unusual a character as I have seen grace a page. Lawton has additionally created other brilliant and believable characters, ranging from Joe's brutal father to Nell, a "po faced", but beautiful idealist who Joe falls for.

There are so many brilliant scenes: the comic/sad ending of his safe cracking career with his grandad, the tour through the wrecked lives of the prisoners of Bergen Belsen, the constant fun Joe has poking fun of the British class system, are only a few. John Lawton has worked hard with this book. I agree with another reviewer that he does not get the credit he deserves. I will reread this book for the richness and detail of every scene. I look forward to more about Joe Wilderness, and how he got out of his latest "mess"...that rascal!
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 23, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
British writer John Lawton - the author of the Inspector Troy series - has produced a new novel that might drive the reader totally crazy. I am going to compare this latest - a sort of "stand-alone" - with Lawton's previous work, not with spy novels in general.

John Lawton is an excellent writer who wraps meticulously researched history around his fictional characters. He writes about wartime England and the post-war years. "Then We Take Berlin" is not a continuation of the Troy series, though there are several characters from those books who "pop up" in "Berlin". The main character is a young man - John Holderness - who has mastered criminal activity like robbery and selling stolen goods on the London black-market during the war years. Too young to fight, he's drafted after the war and winds up the "glass house" of jail for actions unsuitable for an army private. He's saved from prison by a posh officer who recognises his innate intelligence and sets off polishing young Holderness and turning him into an intelligence operative in Germany. Holderness - who has acquired the nickname "Wilderness" from his many lady friends - is a value to the British secret service in post-war Germany, while conducting smuggling operations in his off-time. Author Lawton sets "Wilderness" off on a great many adventures - some legal, some not - while hatching the most audacious plan for June, 1963.

Okay, here's the problem with "Then We Take Berlin" - the ending. I've read the ending several times and I don't understand it. Did Lawton's publisher take out a couple of - really crucial - pages? Is this novel the first of a series? Am I a complete dimwit? (Probably).
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Medina Molly on September 5, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Aside from interesting historical descriptions of Berlin in the years of its post-WWII partition, this is a disappointing novel. Disjointed plot lines; cardboard characters you don't care about; word plays disrupting the story flow; occasional interjections of Russian and German without translation, adding nothing; a bizarre, abrupt -to the point of drop-off-the-cliff ending: intended, perhaps, to imbue ominous significance to Leonard Cohen's song lyrics, the basis for the book's title --- or to maybe just to insert a hook that would tie this book to a sequel.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Maine Colonial TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
John Lawton is on my top-5 list of contemporary authors, so I was excited when I heard he had created a new protagonist, John Wilfrid Holderness. That sounds like a posh name, but he's known by most people as Joe Wilderness, which is a much better fit.

Joe is a London East End wide boy, a chancer who lives on his wits and guile. That's all the more true when his mother is killed in the Blitz, found dead ensconced on a barstool with her gin still sitting in front of her. Joe's grandfather Abner moves Joe into an attic room at his place in Whitechapel, where Abner lives with his longtime girlfriend (and sometime prostitute) Merle.

Abner teaches Joe everything he knows about burglary and safe-cracking. Joe is a quick study, not just about crime, but books, and observing people. Smart and lucky are two different things, though. Just when all the soldiers and sailors are returning home from World War II, Joe is drafted. He's about to be tossed into the punishment cells for insubordination during his basic training when he's plucked out by Lieutenant Colonel Burne-Jones, who's seen Joe's IQ score. Burne-Jones sends Joe to Cambridge to learn Russian and German, and to London for individual tutoring in languages, politics and history.

Of course, Burne-Jones is training Joe to work in military intelligence, but you already figured that out. Off Joe goes to Berlin in 1946, where his job is to assess German citizens looking to get jobs in the de-Nazified country. Aside from that desk job, though, what an amazing time and place for a wide boy. "It was love at first sight. He and Berlin were made for each other. He took to it like a rat to a sewer.
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