Top positive review
Alex Gerlis could be the best spy novelist you've never read
January 22, 2019
When you think of espionage fiction, only a handful of names come quickly to mind. John le Carré, of course. Ian Fleming, unfortunately. You might also name Alan Furst, Joseph Kanon, possibly Charles Cumming. And if you've been reading books in the genre for a long time, as I have, you'll think of Frederick Forsyth, Len Deighton, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler, among others. The name Alex Gerlis isn't likely to roll off the tongue. But if he keeps writing at the level he displays in his first four spy novels, that's going to change.
An extraordinarily complicated novel
The Berlin Spies is the fourth novel Gerlis has written since he left his job teaching journalism at the BBC in 2011. Like his first three books, The Berlin Spies is solidly rooted in historical reality, cleverly plotted, and features characters whose interactions are invariably plausible. Unlike the first three, this novel is extraordinarily complicated. The cast of "main characters" is four pages long. Included are British, Russians, and Germans in four categories: "recruits" selected by the SS for a special mission, Germans in the Second World War, Germans after the war, and members of the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof) terrorist group active in Germany from 1970 to 1995. Many of these characters have one or more false identities. And the action rockets from Magdeburg, Germany in September 1944, to Moscow in 1949, to Frankfurt and Bonn, West Germany in 1969 and West Berlin in January 1970, to Paris, France in March 1970, and so forth. This story never stands still; the scene shifts repeatedly. I was more than one-quarter of the way through the book before I figured out what was going on. But I'm glad I stuck it out. The story is richly rewarding.
Lest you, too, find it slow going if you read this book, I'll try to tee up the plot for you.
The best spy novelist you've never read
Following the Normandy Invasion in June 1944, elements of the SS concluded that the war was lost. In a desperate scheme to keep the Nazi movement alive after the war, they recruited ten German soldiers who spoke fluent, colloquial English for a secret mission. They assigned the recruits to front-line units where the commanding officer would arrange for them to be captured by the British or Americans. The SS knew the Allies would send them to POW camps in England. Their charge was to escape. They were to make their way to safe houses staffed by pro-Nazi English families and await further instructions.
The plot revolves around the lives of just six of the ten recruits. As their stories unfold over the years, the intelligence agencies of three countries become involved: the West German BfV, British MI5, MI6, and Special Branch, and the Russian NKVD (forerunner of the KGB and today's FSB). The young hotheads of the Baader-Meinhof gang become embroiled as well. As you may be able to see, it takes a masterful writer to weave together all these disparate threads. The Berlin Spies confirms for me why I consider Alex Gerlis the best spy novelist you've never read.
To explain more than this would spoil the suspense.
One bonehead error
I've been editing copy for more than 40 years, including everything from letters, reports, proposals, and short stories to full-length books. So, when I find that a writer has made a glaringly obvious error again and again, I become . . . well, angry. My experience in reading an otherwise excellent piece of work is diminished.
Unfortunately, Alex Gerlis has fallen into that trap in The Berlin Spies. He repeatedly has his characters address each other by name, and not just once at the beginning of a conversation and perhaps again for emphasis midway or at the end, but again and again and again, sometimes more than once in the same paragraph. I understand the impulse: when natural conversation is written, it's not always immediately obvious who's talking to whom. Undoubtedly, Gerlis wanted to be kind to his readers and minimize the confusion. But there are other, more elegant ways to solve this problem. Gerlis's work is otherwise outstanding. It's time he learn those techniques for the sake of readers like me. Then, he may truly become the best spy novelist writing today.