Jack Grimwood- Nightfall Berlin

In 1986, news that East-West nuclear-arms negotiations are taking place lead many to believe the Cold War may finally be thawing. For British intelligence officer Major Tom Fox, however, it is business as usual. Ordered to arrange the smooth repatriation of a defector, Fox is smuggled into East Berlin. But it soon becomes clear that there is more to this than an old man wishing to return home to die – a fact cruelly confirmed when Fox’s mission is fatally compromised. Trapped in East Berlin, hunted by an army of Stasi agents and wanted for murder by those on both sides of the Wall, Fox must somehow elude capture and get out alive. But to do so he must discover who sabotaged his mission and why…

Since an early age I have been fascinated by spies, lies and espionage and all the cloak and dagger activities of those who detect, and seek to subvert threats to national security: grey squirrel can’t fly without umbrella and all that tricksy spy-craft stuff. I was mightily impressed by Jack Grimwood’s debut Moskva that provided a fresh new take on the path previously trodden by Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, and most pleasingly Major Tom Fox is back in the fray in this follow up, Nightfall Berlin. The events of the previous book resonate here as Fox navigates the world of East Berlin, firmly under the control of both the Soviet occupiers and the secretive agents of the state, the infamous Stasi. Tasked with bringing a notorious double agent back home to the clutches of British Intelligence, Fox quickly finds himself embroiled in, and accused of murder, as well as being thrust firmly into the gaze of the pernicious security services, calling on all his skills of evasion and detection to extricate himself from his increasingly perilous situation: a situation that has ramifications for those closest to him too…

This is one of the most skilfully plotted traditional Cold War thrillers I have read in recent years, and as we are effortlessly transported between the harsh, concrete world of East Berlin, and the verdant peace of rural England, Grimwood moves between past and present, laying false clues and leading us as much as Fox himself down blind alleyways, with a trail of misinformation and double crossing galore. Grimwood, similarly in his fantasy oeuvre, is an extremely visual writer, and not without reason I was reminded strikingly of those classic black and white spy films, as Fox navigates his way around this hostile environment. The sheer poverty, and unrelenting grind of life in this communist enclave is front and centre, and by extension what people will do to escape its iron grip. People are fearful and mistrustful, and Grimwood depicts beautifully how Fox seeks to circumvent this pall of suspicion and fear to prove his innocence, and to catch a ruthless killer.

I get the sense that it was with some glee that Grimwood delights in not only constructing a disparate, interesting and slightly damaged characters, but also that he so brilliantly masks those that are treacherous and self serving so well. Without exception, each character is precisely drawn and tangible in their thoughts and motivations for their actions: in what they reveal and what they conceal. In the grand tradition of Le Carre, Ambler, and Deighton, Grimwood tricks and feints the reader, but never to the detriment of the sheer believability of the narrative itself. I was genuinely absorbed and loved the web of reveals and surprises that Grimwood so effortlessly introduces into this seriously gripping thriller. There is a pace and tense nervous energy to the narrative that urges the reader on, and yet a subtle slowing of pace in some of the most nerve shredding scenes that provide a much more unsettling effect on the reader. Grimwood handles all aspects of this book with a deft touch from setting, to characterisation, to pace, to the plot itself, and if you love a twisty, cerebral Cold War thriller as much as I do, I would definitely recommend that you seek out Nightfall Berlin. Duplicitous spies, and conniving Russians seems oddly prescient at the moment… Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin/Michael Joseph for the ARC)

 

Anthony Horowitz- Trigger Mortis

9781409159131

Following in the footsteps of Sebastian Faulks, Jeffrey Deaver and William Boyd, Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz proves itself one of the best retro-James Bond novels to date. Having been left a little bruised and confused by Horowitz’s excursions into the world of Sherlock Holmes, I was more than a little wary of his contribution to the Bond ouvre. But as my recent quote to customers of this one being a ‘really Bond-y Bond novel’ attests, it’s been a total delight to have my apprehension over this one so delightfully undone…

The absolute stand-out feature of this book, is with how much care, attention, and respect, Horowitz affords his depiction of James Bond himself. The little references and attention to the smallest details of Fleming’s legendary secret agent is first class, and more than once a wry smile of recognition passed my lips, as some character detail was inserted effortlessly into the narrative. It was also gratifying to see a small section of Fleming’s own writing woven into one of the chapters, accrued from Horowitz’s obviously studious reading of Fleming’s work authorised by his estate. Hence, Horowitz’s depiction of Bond carries with it a wonderful sense of familiarity and authenticity, which has been sometimes noticeably absent from a couple of the proceeding Bond pastiches. Equally, when one mentions Bond it cannot go without comment that there will be women involved! There is a welcome reappearance of the kick-ass Pussy Galore at the start of the book, but somehow this felt a little unresolved, and didn’t quite gel within the book as a whole. However, with the inclusion of the brilliant Jeopardy Lane, who steps in when Pussy Galore departs , Horowitz has created a female character who encapsulates all that you want from a female character being both feisty and brave, but posing the all important question… is she immune to Bond’s charm? You’ll have to read it to find out!

The plot is terrific carrying all the quintessential moments of extreme peril for our hero, as he becomes immersed in a plot to perpetrate a terrorist attack on New York, under the cover of a U.S. Rocket launch in the fifties space race. There is a good balance between all the attendent details of the U.S. vs Russia space race, and as a bit of a space nerd, I particularly enjoyed this aspect of the story. Earlier in the book there is a heart in mouth episode as Bond also takes part in a death defying motor race at Nurburgring, which is wrought with tension, but again underscored by Horowitz’s obvious research into the motor-sport of this particular period. The book consistently contains an air of peril, with all the action and violence one naturally expects from a Bond adventure. Bond’s nemesis in the book is the sinister millionaire Korean- Sin Jai-Seong aka Jason Sin- who in true Fleming style arouses a strange kind of sympathy in the reader with the tale of his damaging formative years, but is still a total megalomaniac ne’er do well- an archetypal great Bond villain. His twisted verbosity and deranged demeanour is brilliantly rendered, and he is a villain worthy of the attention of the debonair and dangerous Bond.

So altogether quite keen on this one, with some superb characterisation, a good high quotient of derring-do and all the little details that fit this book so nicely into Fleming’s legacy. Maybe for this reader just not enough Pussy- Galore that is…

(With thanks to Orion for the ARC)