Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

Reviewed by Richard Goldman
Hardcover March 2015

Available at Mystery Lovers Bookshop

I've been a big gan of Joe Kanon ever since the publication of his first novel, Los Alamos, a tale set during WW II that concerned by atomic bomb project at the lab of the title. Most of Kanon's books are set in and around the War and I think that this is because, as a man of a certain age, he still sees the War as the seminal event of the 20th Century. So much of what we live with today politically and economically came to us as a result of the wrenching events of that conflict and, just as importantly, the convicts that followed most particularly the Cold War. The shift of the Soviets from allies to enemies is a continuing theme in these books and Leaving Berlin in no exception. The protagonist, Alex Meier, is a German-born novelist; imprisoned by the Nazis before the war who was freed and escaped to America where he lived and worked in Hollywood. The Red Scare that followed the war put an end to that career for Meier who was, naturally, a bit of a leftie. His refusal to testify--to name names--leads to a threatened jail term and Meier, at the invitation of the Soviet Military Government of Germany returns to his native country. Naturally, the situation is not that simple. Meier has been recruited by the CIA to act as a spy while in Germany with the promise of allowing his return to the US. Equally naturally, none of this goes as planned and Alex turns out to be quite resourceful in playing each side against the other in a deadly game of betrayal.

As someone who grew up on the spy fiction of John LeCarre and Len Deighton I've never found a setting more evocative for the espionage novel than Berlin during the Cold War. Kanon is certainly of the realist school in portraying the grubby nature of real espionage although he maintains a clear-eyed view of which side deserves the moral high ground. The book's events take place during the Berlin Airlift and the American efforts to supply a city under siege are ample demonstration of who was on the side of the angels. Kanon is also excellent in his portrayal of the philosophical contortions of the returning expatriates who fervently believe in the ideal of a socialist worker's paradise but still have to write poems of praise to the murderous Stalin. Germans in the east, caught between their Nazi past and their Soviet future have no good choices in this world.

An excellent portrayal of a world in turmoil as one war gives way imperceptibly to another.