Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

Divisions in a country or a population are rarely stark unless they are right in front you-unless you’re directly affected. This was obviously not true of Berlin in 1949, the title location of this spycraft offering by Joseph Kanon. The Wall was obviously a fact of life for the people, with capitalism and communism standing side by side for all of the world to see, and of course such a place became a hothouse of espionage, similar to Istanbul after WW2, which, incidentally is the setting of another Kanon thriller called Istanbul Passage (which I now want to read).

The main character in Leaving Berlin is Alex Meier, a Jewish writer who settled in the United States after the War. After a brush with the warmhearted politics of the McCarthy trials, Meier is offered the chance to “clear” his name by returning to Berlin Berlin and reaching out to his old family friends in order to give the newly founded CIA an agent inside the divided city. Needless to say, it all goes downhill from there.

This is the first book by Kanon I’ve read, and it has ensured that this will not be the last. He paints a vivid picture of the shabby glamour and desolation of Berlin, and of the struggles of the people who are just trying to survive after having a brutal separation imposed on them by outside forces after the horrors of WW2. The mystery itself proceeds at a slow but steady pace, with plenty of time for characters to be introduced. One minor difficulty I did encounter was that two of them had very similar last names, which necessitated a bit of page-turning to remember who was who at one time. And of course there are no clear-cut bad guys and good guys, just people living in an extraordinary time and place.

It’s a gently despairing story (but still quite entertaining), which is probably true of most spy stories, since living with lies and no one to trust is probably one of the toughest occupations in the world. In the 1950’s at least you might hear from a physical source if someone was talking about you or giving away secrets and information was easier to find, but in these days of social media there are layers upon layers of data and stories to dig through. I wonder if the semi-mythical days of Bond were more fun for spies?

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