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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A very mixed bag, 7 May 2013
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This review is from: Orders from Berlin (Kindle Edition)
My overall impression of this book is that Tolkien isn't quite sure who he's writing for. He seems to be trying to cover a number of genres and succeeds in none of them. The cover (which is what attracted me) hints at a shadowy world of espionage, perhaps reminiscent of Alan Furst's tarnished Europe, or Eric Ambler. Spying is the strongest influence throughout, and Tolkien is clearly following the le Carre mould here - traitors in MI6 who must be hunted down at all costs (he even uses the word 'mole', which was invented by le Carre and not used during WWII!) but doesn't really follow this up with the cynicism or tradecraft of le Carre. Moreover, as anyone aware of the history of espionage in WWII knows, the Germans didn't have any agents in Britain in such a high position - they were all poorly-trained and caught on arrival, often after stupid mistakes. The specifics of the Churchill assassination plot are amateur at best, and full of holes. Overall, the spy angle has been done better by other authors, so espionage aficionados aren't getting much out of the book here; none of the technical details of espionage, or the murky, ambiguous atmosphere of other writers.

There's an element of mystery in the book - the protagonist is a detective - but incredibly little detection. The identity of the spy is given away in their first appearance - it's not explicit, but so obvious that I'm wondering if it would really be a spoiler to give it away. This is then confirmed half-way through, so the mystery is gone and we are left plodding through the motions and trying to guess if Churchill will be saved, which isn't much fun, as we all know the answer. Usually, authors will either hide the identity of the villain completely, throwing out red herrings and ambiguities, until the very last possible moment, or make it obvious to the reader (but not to the other characters) so we can enjoy the cat-and-mouse chase from the bad guy's perspective. Tolkien opts for a sort of middle ground that satisfies no-one.

There's a murder in there, too, but it's secondary to the spy plot and not really dwelt upon. Despite their being a plucky heroine with a failing marriage, there's no romance here either. The detective's already happily married, and his affections are strictly platonic, leaving any hint of a love story dead in the water; not even a hint of attraction.

There are good parts, though. It's well written, with deft character sketches, and though it's nowhere near as redolent of the period as Alan Furst or David Downing, there's a sense of Britain under siege and how people felt at the time. For me, though, the most enjoyable aspect was the historical characters. Tolkien has obviously done his research, and produced compelling portraits of Hitler and Heydrich, the latter being the stand-out character for me. The complexity of the man is well captured - a brave fighter pilot, capable of playing the violin beautifully, yet an utter sociopath responsible for the death of millions (the final scene in the book is chilling, for those who know what Heydrich got up to next). Churchill gets less screen time, but is still excellent.

Whilst reading Orders From Berlin, I kept making the inevitable comparisons to Jack Higgins' The Eagle Has Landed (another book about Germans trying to assassinate Churchill in 1943, and well worth a look). Despite being a better-written work, Orders From Berlin is let down by its poor mystery elements, thin plot, and lack of action or suspense. We go from A to B to C, watching the characters find out stuff we already know, including if Churchill survives or not. Higgins' book relies on its fast pace and tense action scenes, together with the thrill of rooting for the bad guys, to carry its action along. I can't say I'd be tempted to try another one of Simon Tolkien's books, to be honest - Orders From Berlin just isn't exciting enough.
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