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)

 

Matthew Richardson- My Name Is Nobody

Solomon Vine was the best of his generation, a spy on a fast track to the top. But when a prisoner is shot in unexplained circumstances on his watch, only suspension and exile beckon.
Three months later, MI6’s Head of Station in Istanbul is abducted from his home. There are signs of a violent struggle. With the Service in lockdown, uncertain of who can be trusted, thoughts turn to the missing man’s oldest friend: Solomon Vine.
Officially suspended, Vine can operate outside the chain of command to uncover the truth. But his investigation soon reveals that the disappearance heralds something much darker. And that there’s much more at stake than the life of a single spy…

Oooh I do love a good spy thriller, and a behind the scenes look at the secret world of espionage, so was more than a little tempted to read My Name Is Nobody, having heard debut author Matthew Richardson talk about the book at a recent crime fiction event. Tapping in perfectly to this popular genre, inhabited by such heavyweights as John Le Carre, Charles Cumming, and Mick Herron, how did this spy thriller measure up? Hailing from Cheltenham, the home of world renowned government listening post GCHQ, and currently working within the hallowed walls of Westminster, the home of British democracy, or skulduggery, depending on your viewpoint, Matthew Richardson brings his knowledge of both locations to the fore. Set aside the mysterious shadowy worlds of MI5 and MI6, and an obvious appreciation of spy tradecraft, Richardson serves up a twisting, and duplicitous tale of counter-bluff, and dishonesty worthy of his contemporaries. Beginning with violent events during an interrogation of a suspected terrorist in Istanbul, and the abduction of MI6’s Head of Station in its aftermath, disgraced agent Solomon Vine, begins his own unsanctioned investigation into these startling events, inviting a whole heap of trouble…

Overall, I found this a well-plotted and multi-layered spy thriller, resplendent with detail on the workings of some of Britain’s most secret inner sanctums, and a never less than accurate and atmospheric portrayal of Richardson’s chosen locations. This applied to the echoing chambers of Westminster itself in the pulsing heart of London, the dreaming spires of Oxford, the rolling countryside of Gloucestershire and the excruciating blandness of Cheltenham rail station and its environs. The action moves quickly and seamlessly between these locations, as Vine endeavours to uncover a major conspiracy, where the old adage applies of trust no one, be this in Vine’s investigation or as we discover in a series of flashbacks, those closest to him. Indeed, my prevailing thought throughout was that I felt unable to trust anybody, and more than a few characters may not appear to be all they seem. I’ll say no more than that on the plot.

Although the plot of My Name Is Nobody was incredibly well structured, with its attention to the workings of Britain’s security services, and some nice old school spy tricks, I was a little less convinced by the characterisation, and a slight over-reliance on repetition in the plot. I don’t know how convinced I felt by the main players as they were a wee bit cardboard cut-out, and some of the personal upheavals in Vine’s life were too well signposted, and a little predictable for this reader, but I think the strength of plotting, storytelling and location counterbalances these small hiccups. A good old fashioned spy thriller with a good contemporary feel. Recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)