Friday, October 9, 2015

Review of The Girl in Berlin by Elizabeth Wilson (2012, Serpent's Tail)

1951 and Burgess and Maclean have just fled England.  Having been acquitted of murder and fleeing to East Germany a few years previously, communist Colin Harris decides to travel back to London to check out the possibilities of return with a wife in tow.  Harris’ arrival raises flags and the enigmatic MI5 spymaster, Kingdom, asks Special Branch detective, Jack McGovern to keep tabs on him.  A couple of days later a former German scientist, who’d fled to Britain in the late 1930s, is discovered floating in a canal, having last been seen with Harris and a colleague.  While CID investigate, McGovern is sent to Berlin to keep tabs Harris who has returned to the city.  There he meets a raft of shady characters and Harris’ financee, who is desperate to find passage to England.  McGovern finds himself adrift in the divided city, unsure as to what he is looking for or why.  He senses he’s a pawn in a larger game, but he’s not sure of the purpose or rules.  And it seems he might be expendable.

On one level The Girl in Berlin works quite well.  It is quite nicely written with some nice attention to detail concerning London and Berlin in 1951, including fashion, politics, and sense of place.  Many of scenes are well framed and engaging.  On another level, however, the book seems quite disjointed and the plotting somewhat ponderous.  While Detective McGovern plays the central character, rather than follow him exclusively, Wilson weaves together a number of intersecting threads centred on a set of characters.  Some of these are much more crucial to the mystery aspects of the book than others, with some interchanges have little bearing on the case.  The result is a storyline that seems more literary than crime/spy orientated and a plot that seems to make little sense at times.  Consequently, while the story had its moments, overall it lacked coherence and didn’t ring true.

1 comment:

Mathew Paust said...

You had my appetite piqued for Cold War spy novel, something I haven't enjoyed in a while. Then I got to the downside. Thanks anyway. Maybe next time.