Leaving Berlin

Title:                      Leaving Berlin

Author:                 Joseph Kanon

Kanon, Joseph (2015, 2016). Leaving Berlin: a novel: New York: Washington Square Press

LCCN:    2015478203

PS3561.A476 L43 2016

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      November 2, 2017

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

Leaving Berlin may be the most suspenseful of Joseph Kanon’s historical spy thrillers, a beautifully-crafted and evocative novel set in the ruins of 1949 East Berlin. Kanon’s The Good German[2] took place a few years earlier, in 1945 Berlin, and he has an affinity for the city and its culture (just as novelist Alan Furst does for Paris between the wars.)

The novel’s protagonist is Alex Meier, a German-Jewish author who has spent the Second World War in Hollywood but has now run afoul of Congressional investigators who want him to “name names,” which as a matter of principle he won’t. No longer welcome in America, Meier finds himself warmly welcomed by the Soviet authorities ruling Berlin. But Meier has struck a secret, Faustian bargain with the CIA—in exchange for his eventual readmission to the U.S., where his twelve-year old son lives, he will spy on the Russians and their German Stalinist helpers.

Meier is not the only literary exile returning to post-war Berlin; Kanon includes two real-life figures—Bertolt Brecht, the German Marxist poet and playwright, and the anti-Fascist writer Anna Seghers (the pseudonym adopted by Anna Reiling)—who have also decided to live under Communism in the hopes of building a new society, a Workers’ Paradise.

Meier finds a city full of contrasts. Berliners can still travel between the Soviet, American, French, and British sectors. At the same time, however, the Soviets are trying to force the Allies to leave by cutting off access to the food and coal necessary for the city’s very existence. The West has responded with the Berlin Airlift, and the sight and sound of airplanes flying overhead is a constant reminder in Leaving Berlin of a growing Cold War tension that Meier can’t escape.

The novel explores the moral and psychological costs of betrayal. The CIA expects Meier to spy on his German friends from the past, including the beautiful aristocrat Irene von Bernuth, once his lover; the German secret police (the K-5, later known as the Stasi) are recruiting informants; and the Russians are setting the stage for a purge of Party members who suddenly find themselves labeled as counter-revolutionaries because they’ve made the wrong joke.

Kanon has fashioned a suspenseful and engaging story against this backdrop. As Dieter, a former Berlin cop now working for the Americans, and one of the more appealing characters in the book, explains to Meier “in this business at some point you have to trust somebody.” Who Meier can trust—and how the personal can trump the political—becomes the fascinating question at the heart of Leaving Berlin, and one that commands the reader’s attention until the very last page.

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2015,” accessed at http://www.jeffersonflanders.com/2015/04/top-spy-thrillers-espionage-novels-of-2015/

[2] Kanon, Joseph (2001). The Good German: a novel. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

Prussian Blue

Title:                      Prussian Blue

Author:                 Philip Kerr

Kerr, Philip (2018).

OCLC:    995116333

PR 6061 E784 P79 2017

Summary Bernie Gunther, once Commissar of the Third Reich, is on the run from Erich Mielke, the deputy head of Stasi, and reminisces about a case he investigated seventeen years earlier in which someone shot an engineer on the terrace of Hitler’s private residence.
The French Riviera, 1956. Erich Mielke, deputy head of the East German Stasi, has turned up in Nice, and he’s calling in a debt. Mielke wants Bernie go to London with the vial of Thallium, to poison a female agent they both have had dealings with. Friedrich Korsch, an old Kripo comrade now working for Stasi, is there to make sure Bernie gets the job done. As Bernie bolts for the German border, he recalls the summer of 1939, when the body of a low-level bureaucrat was found at Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in Obersalzberg. Bernie and Korsch have one week to solve the murder.

Date Posted:      October 26, 2017

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

Philip Kerr’s latest thriller, Prussian Blue, features his battered hero/anti-hero Bernie Gunther, a former Berlin detective of the Weimar era, once again in peril because of his checkered past. The novel offers parallel storylines: Gunther is on the run in 1956 France, chased by the East German secret services after he has refused to assassinate a Stasi agent in England (who was his lover); he finds himself flashing back to his investigation of a murder at Berchtesgaden (Hitler’s Alpine lair, the “Eagle’s Nest”) in the late 1930s. There are twists-and-turns along the way, but the stories eventually overlap before they are resolved.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels is their clear portrayal of the top Nazis not as rulers of a modern nation state but instead as corrupt crime family bosses, intent on amassing money and power (justifying their brutal actions by a horrific ideology). Traditional histories sometimes miss this element. Prussian Blue captures this insight, as Gunther learn during this investigation that the local Nazis in Berchtesgaden are dealing drugs and running a prostitution ring. Kerr is also clear-eyed about his protagonist: Bernie has committed crimes, done horrible things to stay alive—but his moral compass is not broken, and this native Berliner does what he can to set things right in his rough-and-ready way.

Prussian Blue draws on recent historical research suggesting that the Third Reich’s leaders and soldiers were jacked up on stimulants, particularly Pertavin, a version of methamphetamine. There is some irony in the hypocrisy of Nazis high on meth when their Führer was a strident non-smoking vegetarian (with his own secret drug habit).

If there’s a weakness in the novel, it’s that Kerr asks the reader to suspend belief when it comes to Bernie Gunther’s colorful and often subversive verbal pyrotechnics, which are typically aimed at high-placed Nazis and other grim authority figures. The wise-cracking Bernie has “no filter” (to use a 2017 term), when expressing his views. In real life, his sarcasm, thinly-veiled political insults, and outright insubordination would have bought him a one-way ticket to a concentration camp, no matter how useful his talents as an investigator might be.

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2017,” accessed at http://www.jeffersonflanders.com/2017/01/top-spy-thrillers-and-espionage-novels-of-2017/

A Single Spy

Title:                      A Single Spy

Author:                 William Christie

Christie, William (2017). A Single Spy. New York: Minotaur Books

LCCN:    2016055981

PS3553.H735 S56 2017


  • “A single spy—in the right place and at the right moment—may change the course of history.” Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnov, an orphan and a thief, has been living by his wits and surviving below the ever-watchful eye of the Soviet system until his luck finally runs out. In 1936, at the age of 16, Alexsi is caught by the NKVD and transported to Moscow. There, in the notorious headquarters of the secret police, he is given a choice: be trained and inserted as a spy into Nazi Germany under the identity of his best friend, the long lost nephew of a high ranking Nazi official, or disappear forever in the basement of the Lubyanka. For Alexsi, it’s no choice at all. Over the course of the next seven years, Alexsi has to live his role, that of the devoted nephew of a high Nazi official, and ultimately works for the legendary German spymaster Wilhelm Canaris as an intelligence agent in the Abwehr. All the while, acting as a double agent—reporting back to the NKVD and avoiding detection by the Gestapo. Trapped between the implacable forces of two of the most notorious dictatorships in history, and truly loyal to no one but himself, Alexsi’s goal remains the same—survival. In 1943, Alexsi is chosen by the Gestapo to spearhead one of the most desperate operations of the war—to infiltrate the site of the upcoming Tehran conference between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, and set them up to be assassinated. For Alexsi, it’s the moment of truth; for the rest of the world, the future is at stake”— Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      October 23, 2017

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

At the center of William Christie’s A Single Spy is the character of Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnov, an orphan who lives by his wits in the lawless desert of Soviet Azerbaijan and is recruited into the NKVD in 1936. The spymasters in Dzerzhinsky Square have selected Alexsi because he speaks German and they send him as a teenager to Germany as a deep penetration agent. Alexsi is a survivor, ruthless when cornered, and he successfully infiltrates the Abwehr (German military intelligence) and begins to feed Moscow vital intelligence, including Hitler’s plans for an attack on the Soviet Union (information which Alexsi’s superiors ignore).

Much of the tension in the novel revolves around Alexsi’s precarious position inside German intelligence circles and the risks he must take in communicating with his Soviet handlers. He becomes entangled in Operation LONG JUMP, the Nazi plot to kill Winston Churchill at the 1943 Teheran Conference of the Allied leaders. When Alexsi realizes that both German and Soviet intelligence agencies want the same outcome—the British leader eliminated—he also discovers that he has become expendable. (It’s a threatening situation perfect for a resilient and imaginative survivor to overcome.)

A Single Spy is reminiscent of Alan Furst’s Spies of the Balkans[2] with its depiction of the way the NKVD trained and handled its agents, and with its deeply-researched period detail. The novel is an entertaining and historically informative read, and Christie’s ability to build suspense is impressive.

[1] Flanders, Jefferson, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2017,” accessed at http://www.jeffersonflanders.com/2017/01/top-spy-thrillers-and-espionage-novels-of-2017/

[2] Furst, Alan (2010). Spies of The Balkans. New York: Random House

The Other Side of Silence

Title:                      The Other Side of Silence

Author:                Philip Kerr

Kerr, Philip (2016). The Other Side of Silence. New York: [Marian Wood Books], published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons

LCCN:    2016006378

PR6061.E784 O84 2016.


  • “From New York Times-bestselling author Philip Kerr, the much anticipated return of Bernie Gunther in a series hailed by The Daily Beast as “the best crime novels around today.” Once I’d been a good detective in Kripo, but that was a while ago, before the criminals wore smart gray uniforms and nearly everyone locked up was innocent.” Being a Berlin cop in 1942 was a little like putting down mousetraps in a cage full of tigers. The war is over. Bernie Gunther, our sardonic former Berlin homicide detective and unwilling SS officer, is now living on the French Riviera. It is 1956 and Bernie is the go-to guy at the Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, the man you turn to for touring tips or if you need a fourth for bridge. As it happens, a local writer needs just that, someone to fill the fourth seat in a regular game that is the usual evening diversion at the Villa Mauresque. Not just any writer. Perhaps the richest and most famous living writer in the world: W. Somerset Maugham. And it turns out it is not just a bridge partner that he needs; it’s some professional advice. Maugham is being blackmailedperhaps because of his unorthodox lifestyle. Or perhaps because of something in his past, because once upon a time, Maugham worked for the British secret service, and the people now blackmailing him are spies. As Gunther fans know, all roads lead back to the viper’s nest that was Hitler’s Third Reich and to the killing fields that spread like a disease across Europe. Even in 1956, peace has not come to the continent: now the Soviets have the H-bomb and spies from every major power feel free to make all of Europe their personal playground”– Provided by publisher.


Date Posted:      November 23, 2016

Reviewed by Jefferson Flanders[1]

Philip Kerr had to be persuaded by his publisher to continue his series of Bernie Gunther novels. His latest (his eleventh), The Other Side of Silence, proves that Kerr made the right decision, at least as far as his readers go—it’s a clever, entertaining thriller that also zeros in on the sorry state of British intelligence in the mid-1950s and touches upon some of the morally-suspect Cold War bargains made by both sides of that protracted conflict.

Kerr has no use for the fiction—advanced by Ian Fleming and John le Carré among others—that the post-war British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) was particularly effective or competent, or that it deserved the trust or respect of the American intelligence community. (The BBC’s recent video release of British traitor Kim Philby describing MI6’s lax security to a group of East German spies underscores the awkward, and ugly reality of the dysfunctional and compromised agency.)

As The Other Side of Silence opens in 1956, Kerr’s cynical protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is working as a concierge at Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera during the summer of the Suez crisis. Gunther’s checkered past as a Berlin cop, private detective, and (coerced) SS officer once again catches up to him. He’s blackmailed into helping the famous British novelist W. Somerset Maugham deal with a blackmailer threatening to expose Maugham’s connection to England’s gay demimonde[2] (homosexuality is a crime in mid-century Great Britain).

Gunther quickly learns of the Maugham’s tangled history with both MI6 and members of the Cambridge spy ring, those upper-class Brits—like Donald Mclean, Guy Burgess, and Philby—who betrayed their class and country by spying for the Soviets. The Other Side of Silence is filled with plenty of intriguing twists and turns, a fair bit of black humor, and an uncompromising perspective on the ugliness of European history in the 20th century.

Like his hero, Kerr is a populist at heart, and he paints a devastating portrait of the arrogant and dimwitted upper echelons of Anthony Eden’s England. Gunther wisecracks somewhat less and ponders life somewhat more than in Kerr’s earlier novels and yet he notes: “Experience has taught me that it’s better to be serious and I should know; I’ve tried and failed to be serious on thousands of occasions.”

[1] Jefferson Flianders, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2016,” downloaded November 23, 2016

[2] Demimonde: a group of people considered to be on the fringes of respectable society.


Title:                      Winter

Author:                 Len Deighton

Deighton, Len (1987). Winter: A Berlin Family, 1899-1945. London: Hutchinson

LCCN:    88213902

PR6054.E37 W56 1987


Date Posted:      November 13, 2015

A review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt[1]

It is common knowledge that the leadership of the German National Socialist Workers Party, or Nazis, was little more than a gang of crooks, murderers, political opportunists and racists. But Len Deighton sees it a little differently. In his 19th work of fiction, Winter: A Novel of a Berlin Family, he traces the lives of two German brothers, Peter and Paul Winter, from 1899 up to 1945. Peter, the elder, serves as an airship pilot in World War I, goes into his father’s business, marries a Jew and ends up fighting on the Allied side in World War II.

Pauli, as the younger brother is affectionately called, goes to military school, fights in the trenches during World War I, joins the Freikorps, discovers his knack for the law and rises to become the Nazis’ foremost legal adviser. It is Dr. Pauli Winter who figures out how Hitler can consolidate his leadership in 1934. (“Leave the presidency vacant—what a great idea.”) It is Pauli who justifies the practice of “preventive arrest” in 1937. And: “It was Pauli’s long analysis of the concentration-camp accounts that had ended with a suggestion that all the camps eventually become self-financing.”

Yet Pauli is not a thug or a brute. He is not even mean-spirited or anti-Semitic. He is merely a disappointed second son who can’t seem to please his demanding father, and therefore never takes himself very seriously.

This is really the most remarkable thing about Winter—that one can read it all the way through, lay it down and realize one has read the history of a top Nazi figure with engagement and sympathy, or at the very least without being nauseated and repelled. Pauli is ultimately evil because he doesn’t weigh the consequences of his behavior. But viewed up close he seems loyal, courageous, loving, trustworthy and likable – a convincing portrait of a good man gone wrong.

In certain other respects, Mr. Deighton’s novel is not so remarkable. It zips right along, beginning in 1945, circling back to 1899, and working its way forward year by significant year to 1945 again. It encompasses the major events and characters of the eras it covers—Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the war in the trenches, Karl Liebknecht, the beer-hall putsch, Reinhard Heydrich, the fighting on the Russian front, Count von Stauffenberg and the Nuremberg Trials.

But to cover so much ground, Mr. Deighton must devote many pages to exposition. This is achieved through the obvious device of the two-way conversation, which, for all the novel’s potential spectacle, ends up being the main action of the story. As a result, everything happens at a remove from narrative’s immediate focus.

“Your brother won’t come in his uniform, will he?” says Lottie Winter to her husband, Peter.

“Uniform, Pauli? He’s put on too much weight to fit into that these days.”

“You said he’d become a brownshirt.”

“No, darling. I said he’d joined the Nazi Party.” “Isn’t it the same thing?” “No, the S.A., with their brownshirt uniforms, are quite separate. They’re a rabble that that dreadful Captain Rohm recruited from Freikorps riffraff and chronic unemployed. They are closely allied to Hitler’s Nazi Party, but there’s a lot of friction between them.”

Although the cumulative effect of such conversations is a little wooden, it’s also apparent that Mr. Deighton’s overdependence on them is the key to the novel’s success. By avoiding direct descriptions of such obvious spectacles as, say, the Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg, or the landing of Allied forces on Omaha Beach or the discovery of the mass graves at Auschwitz, the author has scaled down their impact sufficiently to fit with the fictional characters who refer to them indirectly in their conversations. Had he reported such earthshaking events directly, it might have been intolerable to switch from them to scenes in which fictional characters carry on their relatively mundane affairs.

After all, if one tries to imagine ex nihilo a historical novel describing Germany in the 20th century, the prospect seems almost absurd. Yet Mr. Deighton’s Winter is anything but absurd. That it works at all—that one reads it with any degree of credulity and then stops to reflect that, yes, there could have been a character like Pauli—is something of a miracle.

So one mustn’t mind the occasionally wooden talk and the sense one gets that history is slipping by beyond one’s reach. It’s a treacherously windy chasm across which Mr. Deighton has strung his narrative tightrope. One is amazed that, for all his stumbling, he never falls off.

[1] Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, “Books of the Times,” New York Times (published December 21, 1987). Downloaded November 13, 2015.

Rift Zone

Title:                 Rift Zone

Author:               Raelynn Hillhouse

Hillhouse, Raelynn (2004). Rift Zone. New York: Forge Books

LCCN:    2003071102

PS3608.I44 R57 2004


Date Updated:  March 30, 2015

Rift Zone is the first Cold War thriller to be published by a major publisher since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Chicago Tribune wrote, “The absolutely riveting scenes of escape and capture in her first thriller prove that Hillhouse might well be the next—and perhaps the last—excellent novelist to come in from the cold. Whitney’s brutal interrogation … is one of the most believably painful scenes in spy literature.”

In the turbulent years after the rise of the Berlin Wall, Germany stood dangerously divided between freedom and Communism. Dodging border patrols and guard posts, a silent few were able to cross the borders of the Iron Curtain to deliver needed supplies, always at the risk of their own lives.

This is the past Faith Whitney knew. The daughter of a Bible smuggler, Faith was raised on the danger that such a life brought with it, a danger that can rip lives apart, even that of a mother and daughter. Now grown and living in 1989 Germany, Faith continues to smuggle goods across the border, narrowly slipping by the East German Stasi each time.

But her activities haven’t gone unnoticed. The Stasi have recruited her to deliver a package to Moscow, a package that must be delivered within forty-eight hours, or Faith will be eliminated. Her payment: the long-desired location of her missing father. The danger mounts as Faith is secretly contacted by the beautiful and seductive Colonel Bogdanov of the KGB, who also wants the package at any cost. Barely surviving harsh interrogations, and unsure of whom to trust, Faith turns to her ex-fiancée, Naval Officer Max Summer, the only man with the know-how to get her and her delivery to Moscow in one piece. On the run, the more they discover about the package, the more they realize that delivering it will likely cost them their lives. Little do they both know that the package is part of a larger plan, one that could affect the result of the Cold War in ways no one ever imagined.

Raelynn Hillhouse has been recruited as a spy by both Libyan and East German intelligence services. (They failed.) A former professor and Fulbright fellow, she’s not only faced the barrels of Kalashnikovs, but has also been caught in the crossfire of border guards’ snowball fights.

Hillhouse earned her M.A. in Russian and East European studies and her Ph.D. in political science at the University of Michigan. She completed her undergraduate degree in history and German area studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She has published articles about Eastern Europe in major academic journals and has lectured at such prestigious institutions as Harvard, the Smithsonian Institution, Soviet Academy of Sciences, among others. She speaks several languages, including German, French and Russian.

The author of this book is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), and this review is published on the Association’s website.



Title:                      GERMANY, INC

Author:                   Werner Meyer-Larsen

Meyer-Larsen, Werner, (2000). GERMANY, INC.: The New German Juggernaut and its Challenge to World Business. John Wiley & Sons

LOC:       99033865

HG4910 .M38713 2000

Date Posted:      May 21, 2013

While the Japanese economic miracle nears an end, German companies set up in Europe turn their attention to America. The recent acquisition of Chrysler by Daimler is a example, but there are also emerging changes in other industries, e.g. in publishing (Bertelsmann), and in chemical and financial companies. Where acquisitions or technology purchases are not possible, competitors will be brought to the American market leaders in life. This development is not only a symbol of a power struggle between companies, but as it were for a tough clash of Western capitalist cultures. Germany attaches great importance to hierarchy, wage equality, and cooperation with trade unions, and indeed has a skilled but not very creative workers. In America, the situation is reversed.

This unique book examines the long-term consequences of this development for the global economy and draws vivid portraits of Germany’s major business leaders, such as Jürgen Schrempp (Daimler), Thomas Middle Hoff (Bertelsmann), Jürgen Weber (Lufthansa) and Henry of Poerer (Siemens).