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4.3 out of 5 stars44
4.3 out of 5 stars
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 August 2013
British writer John Lawton - the author of the Inspector Troy series - has produced a new novel that might drive the reader totally crazy. I am going to compare this latest - a sort of "stand-alone" - with Lawton's previous work, not with spy novels in general.

John Lawton is an excellent writer who wraps meticulously researched history around his fictional characters. He writes about wartime England and the post-war years. "Then We Take Berlin" is not a continuation of the Troy series, though there are several characters from those books who "pop up" in "Berlin". The main character is a young man - John Holderness - who has mastered criminal activity like robbery and selling stolen goods on the London black-market during the war years. Too young to fight, he's drafted after the war and winds up the "glass house" of jail for actions unsuitable for an army private. He's saved from prison by a posh officer who recognises his innate intelligence and sets off polishing young Holderness and turning him into an intelligence operative in Germany. Holderness - who has acquired the nickname "Wilderness" from his many lady friends - is a value to the British secret service in post-war Germany, while conducting smuggling operations in his off-time. Author Lawton sets "Wilderness" off on a great many adventures - some legal, some not - while hatching the most audacious plan for June, 1963.

Okay, here's the problem with "Then We Take Berlin" - the ending. I've read the ending several times and I don't understand it. Did Lawton's publisher take out a couple of - really crucial - pages? Is this novel the first of a series? Am I a complete dimwit? (Probably). While I recognise that in spy/wartime novels very few characters end up who they began as, this book takes unreality to a new high in the last few pages.

So, why am I giving this book a 5 rating rather than, oh, a 3? Because John Lawton is an excellent writer. I mean, really good. And this book is a really good read. What about the "ending"? I don't know. Maybe if Mr Lawton reads this review he'll send me an email and in deepest confidence he will tell me what the hell he meant. And I won't give his secret away. Really...
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 14 December 2013
The first third of Then We Take Berlin is a wonderful read. John Lawton provides an engaging introduction to John Holderness early years growing up in East London during the war, that of Nell's in the last days of the war in Germany, and Holderness' recruitment into military intelligence. The characterisation is keenly observed and there's a strong sense of place and context. In the middle third of the book the narrative starts to become more bitty with many short sections charting Holderness' time in Hamburg and then Berlin as he becomes involved in the black market and starts a relationship with Nell. The final third moves the story through the 1950s up to 1963 and Kennedy's visit to Berlin, and Holderness' attempt to extract someone from East Berlin. Here, the narrative is a little sketchy, Nell largely disappears from view, and it's really not clear what Holderness' motivations are. There is an odd and confusing timeline shift, with some scenes from 1955 inserted between the transition from 1948 to 1952 for no apparent reason, but the most disappointing aspect is the ending. The story just stops. It feels as if at least twenty odd pages are missing. The novel as a whole reads as if Lawton wasn't sure where to take it, or quite how to deal with the twenty year span of time. This was a shame as the start was excellent and Holderness and Nell are attractive creations. It'll be interesting to see how Lawton develops the series.
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on 28 February 2014
As a keen historian who has spent many years living and working in Berlin I have to say that I was pulled in by Lawton's brilliant characters, good historical understanding and perceptive description of the mindset and human foibles that prevailed in the post-war period (on reflection I don't suppose things have changed that much really). His writing is effortless and his cynicism and wonderful (in my humble opinion) sense of humour makes this a great read. I have read hundreds of books about this period, this is up there with the very best. Despite the chronology switching around, the narrative still flows. Don't get hung up on this, just let the story grab you and enjoy the ride.
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on 28 November 2013
This is an effortlessly expert piece of writing, only to be expected from the author of the 'Inspector Troy' series. For anyone with an interest in the final days of World War II and the Cold War years that follow, this is a riveting read, offering a cast of raffish characters and storylines that cover cat burglary, black market shenanigans, people smuggling and the murderous trade of the international spy. Beautifully written, yet it cracks along at a fine pace. Highly recommended.
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on 9 December 2013
Another outstanding book by this author, He must be head and shoulders above the competition in this genre, It grips you from the first page to the last, Just when you think you have worked it out it takes you in another direction, I'm not going to write endless paragraphs about the characters or the plot as some people seem to do as it's not necessary Just get the book and find out for yourselves, you will not be disappointed.
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on 15 December 2013
A working class, former black marketeer effecting the escape of someone dubious from East Berlin in the early 1960's, now where have I heard that before? The resemblance was so acute that I found John morphing in to a young Michael Caine in my mind's eye as I was reading just as Yuri became Colonel Stok. Not that it was a problem, I enjoyed the book as I have enjoyed many other of John Lawton's offerings. I would however, recommend that anyone who did enjoy this might also read the spy series by Len Deighton or at least watch the Harry Palmer films. The ending was a little Deus ex Machina but I suspect that all will be revealed in the sequel and I look forward to it.
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on 21 December 2013
Lawton is one of a handful of English language writers that concentrates in a particular historical milieu. At his best, he writes about an eclectic English family in the forties and fifties that includes both a policeman and a left of centre politician. This book only alludes to them in passing, but is set in the middle of the historical period that Lawton is most comfortable with, and is a really interesting slant on a period of European history that will probably never be adequately explained. Go back and read his many novels in order. You will be much rewarded.
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on 5 December 2013
I really enjoyed this story, found it totally gripping until the end, which i found baffling. Perhaps there is to be a sequel. I would like to think so.
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This convoluted and over-long espionage novel tried, like so many books these days, to pack in too much content at the expense of compelling narrative, suspense and characters you care about. Sandwiched between beginning and end sections based in Berlin, 1963, is some of the dullest storytelling I have read in ages, telling in mind numbing detail the story of John Wilderness, a kind or rogue burglar turned secret agent. Much of it could almost have been drawn from the life of real life spy Eddie Chapman, and indeed much of the book feels derivative and laboured in equal measure. Way too long to keep the interest, the book is bloated further with a rambling section titled "stuff", in which Lawton outlines inspirations behind the book. By which time most of us are way beyond caring. Dire and soporific.
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on 1 February 2016
A good and engaging book-not a bad sign that I read it right until the end.
But what was it about?A London wide boy-post war Berlin-and a story that went,in the end,absolutely nowhere.
Read this book,but not for the silly and stupid ending.
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