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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 19 November 2009
"Workmanlike" is probably the adjective that best fits this thriller, which hopscotches back and forth between the present and WWII. The story is appropriately convoluted for the genre, involving a naive anti-Nazi resistance group in Berlin, the impending collapse of the Third Reich, OSS activities in Switzerland, and how all these connect to the present. And rest assured they do -- as Dr. Nat Turnbull, a semi-distinguished professor of modern German history at a small liberal-arts college, discovers when he is hired to track down some old OSS files hidden by his mentor at the college.

Turnbull (like pretty much every character in the book) is a stock figure, he's the anonymous academic who gets sucked into a great intrigue with national security implications (paging Dr. Jones, Dr. Indiana Jones to the front please, your country needs you to fight Nazis). It seems these old missing files have something to do with present-day nuclear weapons proliferation, and since the FBI apparently doesn't have the expertise to find them, they enlist Dr. Turnbull. This is a pretty flimsy way of setting up a kind of "everyman" protagonist, and it only continues to be unconvincing as the story moves along. But you just have to accept the premise and move on if you want to have any hope of enjoying the book.

What follows is a treasure hunt that takes Dr. Turnbull all over the place, from Baltimore to the National Archives outside Washington, to Florida, Switzerland, various parts of Germany, and so on. Tagging along with him for parts of this quest is his unreliable ally, a mysterious German academic with her own agenda. Meanwhile, alternating chapters take us back to wartime Germany and the relationships among members of a feeble resistance cell. The historically-set material is much more interesting than the contemporary chapters, as we get a real sense of how certain parts of German society were trying to position themselves for the inevitable Allied victory. Alas, the characters of both eras are types rather than people, and there is plenty of quite creaky dialogue throughout.

The story is full of twists and turns and deceit, all of which work perfectly well but somehow feel rather formulaic. You could spend your whole life reading nothing but thrillers revolving around Nazi Germany, so it takes a lot to stand out. (For example, this book has little of the detail that bring Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy to vivid life, nor do they have the striking atmosphere of Alan Furst's excellent spy novels). The book tries gamely to provide that big twist at the end that readers expect from thrillers, unfortunately I saw it coming a mile away (in the first third of the book I had a pretty good idea that an assumption had been made regarding a certain character that would be revealed at the very end to be untrue, and I was right). In the end, I can't say I'm glad I read it, but neither can I say it's not worth reading. It's a serviceable thriller that passes the time pleasantly enough, as long you keep your expectations lowish.
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on 29 May 2012
The Arms Maker of Berlin is a curious book. It's essentially an Indiana Jones-style hunt for important historical documents, with a tangle of individuals and groups also after the prize. It's a book that left me a little conflicted. It really shouldn't have worked. The prose was workmanlike and sometimes clunky. The characters were stock, and fairly thinly drawn, and the dialogue often wooden. And the plot was pure fantasy and ridiculous in places. And yet, despite all that it kind of works, in the same way as some Hollywood action films work - the Indiana Jones movies, for example. It has goodies and baddies (and it's not always clears who is which), a splash of romance, some intrigue and mystery, a dash of suspense and violence, and a veneer of historical respectability. Which kind of compensated for the other shortcomings. There are lots of better crime/thrillers concerning the Second World War from Philip Kerr, Alan Furst, John Lawton and others, but if you like an Indiana Jones-style yarn this might be for you.
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Nat Turnbull, a professor of history, is contacted by the wife of his former mentor, Professor Gordon Wolfe, who has been taken into custody by Berl the FBI for stealing top secret archive documents dating back to the Second World War. Even though they had not spoken for many years, Wolfe knows that Turnbull is the one to unravel the mystery of these documents and follow the trail he has laid for him. This trail leads him to a mysterious resistance group in Berlin known as the White Rose and the search for their betrayer. It is soon clear that the FBI have their own agenda as they want the identity of this person to remain hidden for political and financial reasons. On the face of it a fairly conventional thriller but what makes this title so readable is the tight, incisive writing, the excellent plotting with no loose ends anywhere, and the depth and scope of the research which has obviously gone into the writing of this book.

Excellent and yet another example of a book which will never make any long list for a prize, will never receive a literary review and which will be slighted by the glitterati. Yet it is these unsung heroes who consistently turn out readable, well written novels for us all to enjoy and I can only hope they sell well and bring the author financial as well as personal satisfaction with their talent. I have not read anything else by Dan Fesperman but will now look for his other titles - if they are as enjoyable as this one then I have treats in store.
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on 24 June 2009
Nat Turnbull, historian. Asleep at his cubicle after hours in the library.

Doesn't sound like a hero, does it? And yet, this is the central character of Fesperman's masterful weaving of past and present, of heroes and heroines, villains and deceivers, all somehow linked to events in Berlin during the Second World War.

Fesperman is a great storyteller and I was hooked from the beginning as Turnbull begins to unpeal the layers of the past to it's dramatic conclusion.

I really enjoyed it. Easy read, good characters and plotting, and a step up from his previous novel, The Amateur Spy.
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on 20 December 2013
I love the books of Dan Fesperman, as they offer a backwater of unpublicised historical events woven into a tale of intrigue and treachery. This book is the best and quite stunning that I read it in one long sitting. It would-be a fabulous movie but please don't as it would spoil the one created in my imagination.
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on 13 February 2015
good sevice 100\100
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