BOOK REVIEW: ‘Then We Take Berlin’: Richly Textured Historical Espionage Novel Initiates Series Featuring the Irrepressible Joe Wilderness

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'Then We Take Berlin': Richly Textured Historical Espionage Novel Initiates Series Featuring the Irrepressible Joe Wilderness

Fans of historical fiction have reason to rejoice and much to be thankful for with the publication of John Lawton’s “Then We Take Berlin” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 419 pages, $26.00).

First and foremost from the British author of the Inspector Troy series is John Wilfrid Holderness, better known to one and all as Joe Wilderness, an often lovable, always insubordinate Cockney “wide boy” who might remind many people of the young Michael Caine’s character Alfie Elkins in the 1966 Lewis Gilbert helmed film “Alfie.”

 Wilderness — I’ll call him that to avoid further confusion — in 1941 wartime London loses his mother in a German bombing raid and is a semi-orphan with his abusive father Harry Holderness in the army.

He joins his grandfather Abner Riley in burglarizing houses in posh sections of London, taking advantage of the chaos of war to open safes and steal money from people who don’t think banks are safe from bombing.

A quick study, Joe becomes a skilled safecracker and daring cat burglar until he’s drafted into the Royal Air Force at age 19 in 1946. He’s facing a stretch in the “Glasshouse” — Britspeak for a military prison — for all round insubordination when he’s rescued by Lt. Col. Alec Burne-Jones, who sees a useful espionage asset in the always reading, high IQ teen.

Burne-Jones discovers that Joe — an autodidact who enjoys spending his spare time reading in libraries and building a collection of favorite books —  has a gift for languages, so he sends him to Cambridge to study German and Russian, two languages needed for divided Berlin as Germans seeking jobs need to be cleared of Naziism. Burne-Jones is technically in the military, but he’s really an operative of MI6 –the U.K.’s equivalent of the C.I.A.

In bombed flat postwar Berlin Joe discovers that between gigs for Burne-Jones interviewing Germans — for which he has a special talent in catching those fudging their backgrounds — the city is a paradise for wide boys with a knack for wheeling and dealing. He joins forces with American Capt. Frank Spoleto, several British soldiers from his own social class and a Russian NKVD operative named Yuri Myshkin in a loosely collective gang supplying the black market with everything money can buy. During this period, leading up to 1948, Joe discovers a tunnel that will play a role later in the novel, during 1963.

Through Yuri, Joe Wilderness meets a women that I consider the novel’s most appealing character,  Nell Burkhardt, dubbed “Breakheart” by his buddies. She’s a few years younger than Joe, has a gift for languages even greater than Joe’s and spent the war in Celle, west of Berlin in Lower Saxony with a relative. Celle is the town nearest the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and Nell quickly discovers what most of her neighbors have ignored about the camp.

She makes her way back to her hometown of Berlin because she declares that “Ich bin ein Berliner” a phrase that she donates to President John F. Kennedy on his May 1963 visit to the city.

Lawton writes so well that it’s difficult to tell what’s fact and what stretches the truth, not that I cared one whit! I was quickly swept up in his story, but maybe that’s because I’m a World War II history buff, particularly focusing on the European Theater of Operations and Germany’s descent into hell from 1933 to 1945. Dedicated fans of espionage novels will find “Then We Take Berlin” an outstanding work of factual fiction and the start of a wonderful series.

About the Author

John Lawton is a producer/director in television who has spent much of his time interpreting the USA to the English, and occasionally vice versa. He has worked with Gore Vidal, Neil Simon, Scott Turow, Noam Chomsky, Fay Weldon, Harold Pinter and Kathy Acker. He thinks he may well be the only TV director ever to be named in a Parliamentary Bill in the British House of Lords as an offender against taste and balance – he has also been denounced from the pulpit in Mississippi as a `Communist’, but thinks that less remarkable. He spent most of the 90s in New York – among other things attending the writers’ sessions at The Actors’ Studio under Norman Mailer – and has visited or worked in more than half the 50 states – since 2000 he has lived in the high, wet hills of Derbyshire England, with frequent excursions into the high, dry hills ofArizona and Italy. He is the author of 1963, a social and political history of the Kennedy-Macmillan years, six thrillers in the Troy series and a stand-alone novel, Sweet Sunday. In 1995 the first Troy novel, Black Out, won the WH Smith Fresh Talent Award.

His website:


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