Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review of The Arms Maker of Berlin by Dan Fesperman

History professor, Dr Nat Turnbull, specialises in studying German resistance movements during the Second World War.  He’s dragged from a library late at night by a FBI agent when boxes of stolen, classified documents are discovered in the summer house of his mentor, Professor Gordon Wolfe.  Strange happenings have plagued Wolfe in recent weeks and the FBI want to know the importance of the files.  Turnbull is only happy to help out; anything to get access to such interesting material.  At the initial court hearing, Wolfe hints that there is an important trail ahead, but before he can elaborate he is found dead in his cell.  The boxes reveal that Wolfe was an American agent in Switzerland during the war working for the future head of the CIA, Allan Dulles.  His job involved running agents in Germany linked to resistance groups.  There are are four files missing from the boxes; files that promise dangerous secrets if the various forces gathering to hunt down them down is anything to go by.  So begins a race across America, Switzerland and Germany as Turnbull tries to uncover the truth and a ruthless arms billionaire seeks to thwart his progress.

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  It’s essentially an Indiana Jones-style hunt for important historical documents, with a tangle of individuals and groups also after the prize.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.


Uriah Robinson said...

"And the plot was pure fantasy and ridiculous in places".
I concur with that opinion Rob. If you gave this one 3 stars, you should give your own The White Gallows seven stars!

Rob Kitchin said...

Uriah, as you can tell I had mixed feelings about the book, but on the balance it was entertaining in a Hollywood blockbuster sense, hence the 3 stars.

Bernadette said...

Sometimes I think reading is about mood. I don't read a lot of this kind of thing but every now and again it's just what you need (this where I guiltily admit that I didn't utterly despise the Da Vinci code and even bought Brown's latest in audio format) (though only when on special for $4.95)

Steve Anderson said...

Dead-on review. I felt the same after recently finishing it. I like Fesperman's earlier work, but this one felt like it needed one more rewrite. The historical chapters involving Bauer felt oddly detached and could have comprised a different book, and I was disappointed not to meet Bauer in the current day until the very end.

In any case, nice site here. I'm glad to discover it.