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THE UNDERTAKING by Audrey Magee

THE UNDERTAKING - Audrey Magee THE UNDERTAKING

Audrey Magee (audreymagee.com)

Atlantic Books (atlantic-books.co.uk)

£12.99

In order to temporarily escape the madness of the Eastern Front, German soldier Peter Faber turns to marriage. It is a marriage of convenience, the bride one Katharina Spinell, chosen from a catalogue, a girl he has never met. The benefits are mutual: ten days’ honeymoon leave for him; a war pension for her should he die on the battlefield. In Berlin, the attraction between them is immediate and mutual, and when Peter returns to the front, he leaves more than a memory; Katharina is pregnant and must raise the child alone while Peter moves ever eastwards, fighting a war that is always on the verge of being over.

Audrey Magee’s first novel is a thing of beauty. Split between the ever-shifting Eastern Front, and the relative comfort of Berlin, it shows two sides to the horrors faced by ordinary Germans during the Second World War, horrors often forgotten in favour of the atrocities committed by the upper echelons of the same army for which Peter Faber fights. On the one hand, we have Peter and the small unit of men with whom he lives and fights. Here is the reality of war: the front line, manned by the soldiers at the bottom of the pecking order, while those further up give orders from positions of relative safety. Magee presents these as a series of almost surreal, horrific snapshots, brief glimpses of battle and the aftermath, all seen from the point of view of the ordinary soldier. Why, exactly are they fighting? What will they gain? For Peter, at least, there is good enough reason in the form of his wife and child back in Berlin.

‘Why are you here?’
‘Cannon fodder for that lot in Berlin.’
‘Not that again.’
‘It’s all there is. You can hide behind your wife and child, kill all around you for your wife and child, but you’re really not doing it for them. You’re doing it for the fat bastards in Berlin.’

The other half of the story focuses on Katharina and her family in Berlin. Katharina’s father works for an important member of the Nazi Party and, as a result, receives certain perks that make the lives of the Spinells more comfortable than those of many people around them. We get a brief glimpse of the type of work Mr Spinell, on the orders of the charismatic Dr Weinart, does when Peter is on leave: their job is to evict the Jewish population of Berlin from their homes and send them packing to points east. A large apartment, plenty of food, even a Russian girl to take the pressure of housework from Katharina and her mother, turn out to be less than sufficient payment for the sacrifice the Spinells will ultimately make in the form of their son, Katharina’s brother, a solider also fighting on the Eastern Front. Set against the nightly bombing of the city, and the increasing scarcity of food, the story of the rise and fall of the Spinell family is strangely inevitable while also being heart-breaking to watch. Close to the book’s end, Magee manages to destroy us completely with one single sentence.

For the most part, dialogue forms the backbone of the story, with descriptive narrative very much taking a back seat. Magee’s ability to present a situation purely in dialogue (often without dialogue tags – ‘he said’, ‘she said’) is second to none, scenes running for pages at a time consisting of little more than fragments of speech spoken by two, three, four characters at a time. In these scenes, Magee accomplishes two things: to convey to the reader exactly what is going on, and what the context is; and to simulate a realistic conversation without ever leaving the reader wondering who said what, despite that fact that we’re rarely told explicitly. The characters in this remarkable novel, despite the subject – let’s face it, what could be more generic than a group of soldiers in the midst of war? – are all fully-drawn, each with a unique personality and recognisable voice.

The tone of The Undertaking has an element of the light-hearted. In many ways, this is a consequence of the dialogue-led nature of the story. Despite that, Magee never lets us forget exactly what is going on. We, the reader, find ourselves on the front lines with the men of Faber’s unit, filthy, hungry and cold with no idea if we’ll make it through the next five minutes, let alone to the end of the day. Halfway through, the story takes a sinister twist as Faber finds himself in the centre of the clusterfuck that was the Battle of Stalingrad. Around the same time, Katharina and her family seem to fall out of favour and things take a turn for the disastrous as shortages of food, fuel and medication take their toll on a family already torn apart by personal loss. The disappearance of Katharina’s husband compounds their problems, branding them, by association, as cowards and denying Katharina – due to the lack of any evidence that he ever died – of the war pension that was hers by right of marriage.

Despite the early tone, Audrey Magee’s debut novel, The Undertaking, is as bleak and devastating as they come. A window into a small, personal part of World War II, Magee shows us horrors that we are never likely to forget, brief throw-away lines that will haunt and, in many ways, traumatise us long after we have put the book aside. The writing is beautiful, the dialogue perfectly measured and perfectly natural, the setting and background one we know well enough that the briefest glimpse of an event conveys all we need to know about what is going on outside the story of these entirely captivating – despite their ordinariness – characters around whom the story revolves. One of the strongest debuts I’ve seen in some time, The Undertaking marks Audrey Magee as an extremely talented writer to watch very closely in the future.

PLAN D by Simon Urban

PLAN D - Simon Urban PLAN D

Simon Urban (www.simonurban.de/)

Translated by Katy Derbyshire

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker/)

£14.99

October, 2011. Much of the gas used by Western Europe comes from Russia, via a pipeline network that runs through the middle of the German Democratic Republic. Weeks before the leaders of the two Germanys are due to come together to discuss the future of the pipeline – cheaper gas for the West, more money for East Germany – an elderly man is found hanged from the pipeline, the arrangement of the body suggesting that the Stasi are up to their old tricks again. Martin Wegener, Hauptmann of the People’s Police, is assigned to the case, a case he expects to hand over the the Stasi themselves before the first day is through. But the case has a bearing on the future of the talks; the West insist on assigning one of their own men and he, in turn, insists that Wegener remain on board. As they dig, the dead man reveals one secret after another. The architect of the so-called Plan D, his death has massive implications for the future of the state. All Wegener has to do is stay alive – and stay out of the Stasi’s secret prisons – until he and Brendel can solve the case.

Simon Urban presents us with a vision of a modern-day Europe still divided by the Berlin Wall. While we spend the entirety of the novel tailing Hauptmann Wegener in his investigation, Urban does provide us with glimpses of what is happening beyond the Wall, mainly through the eyes of Wegener’s Western counterpart, Richard Brendel. It’s a fascinating vision, and provides as much entertainment – and, strangely, as much of the reason for wanting to continue reading – as the murder around which the plot revolves. Urban’s world is wonderfully constructed, and we see the fruits of an extra 25 years of Socialist rule on the people of the GDR, a country that has evolved, technologically, as much as its Western peers, albeit in a slightly different way. Here are a swathe of brand names we don’t know, technologies that are unheard of, yet are plausible at the same time: the Minsk mobile phones, which have models specifically for State Security operatives; the Phobos plastic cars, fuelled by rapeseed oil and smelling like chip pans as a result; the Navodobro, in-car guidance systems that run off a proprietary technology that doesn’t require access to the West’s Global Positioning Satellite network. This is a world where Socialist values still very much hold sway and "low cost" is always the name of the game. Foul-smelling air and greasy car windscreens are a small price to pay for these ideals.

At the centre of the story stands Wegener himself. A People’s Policeman, Wegener has a troubled past that has seen him crossing swords with the Stasi, the dreaded State Security, an organisation that is still very much alive, though much smaller than before, and with a much reduced remit compared to the organisation of terror that existed prior to 1989 (a period referred to in the book as the Revitalisation, during which the Wall was opened for a brief period). At least, that’s the official version. Wegener’s friend and mentor, Josef Früchtl, disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and Wegener found himself in trouble when he asked too many questions. Wegener has the added complication of his ex-girlfriend, Karolina Enders, a woman with whom he is still very much in love and who may have a direct connection to the case at hand, since she works for the Ministry for Energy Export. Paranoid and often deluded – much of the book finds us inside Wegener’s head, witnessing a seemingly endless dialogue with a version of Früchtl that lives on in his mind – Wegener has a sharp mind and a sharper tongue that makes him an intriguing and immensely engaging protagonist. The cast of supporting characters are equally as interesting, as is the history of this repressed country and the various organisations that Wegener encounters along the way.

Plan D is a surprising book – it’s not as heavy as the jacket material makes it seem. There are beautiful touches, and little glimpses of a dark and wonderful humour in the storytelling that transform police procedural-meets-political intrigue into something completely different, and altogether more pleasing. There are obvious comparisons to be made with the like of Robert Harris’ Fatherland and, while the era is completely different, and the points of divergence of the two alternate histories decades apart, Xavier March and Martin Wegener are most definitely two of a kind. It’s a wonderfully written, and obviously lovingly translated, novel that will have the reader, by turns, nailed to the edge of their seat and laughing at some minor incongruity or well-placed joke – often made at Wegener’s expense.

There’s no need for anyone to betray you, Martin, you do that yourself, you insane, horny, dumb idiot of a stallion, you’re the one whose professional interest is on truth, you’re the one chasing after it like a tribe of cannibals after Schalck-Golodkowski, you know the truth finds it own path, it can’t be stopped, it creeps into the light of day at some point, through the tiniest fracture, for the truth, my friend, is a brutal, five-second sauerkraut fart in a teeny windowless cellar room, one second before the masterclass of the Académie du Sommelier comes in.

Simon Urban has created a believable world, a country living with ideals that are almost twenty-five years past their sell-by date, yet surviving nonetheless through sheer luck and the power of the secret police that lurk around every corner. It’s a realistic vision of what Berlin might have been like had the Wall still split the city in two. The inhabitants of this gloomy, greasy city with its pervasive smell of frying oil run the gamut from those happy with their lot, to those – like Wegener himself – who would bolt to the West given half a chance. It’s a gripping read, at times funny, at others quite sad, leaving the reader fearing for the future, not to mention the sanity, of the novel’s protagonist. Despite a distinctly noir feel, Plan D heralds a fresh new look at the European crime novel and plants Simon Urban firmly on the must-read list. This is my surprise hit of the year so far, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

An Interview with CHRIS MORGAN JONES

Morgan Jones, Chris credit Alexander James
Photograph © Alexander James
Name: CHRIS MORGAN JONES

Author of: AN AGENT OF DECEIT (2011)

On the web: www.chrismorganjones.com

On Twitter: @chrismjauthor

Chris Morgan Jones’ first novel, An Agent of Deceit, was published in 2011 to widespread critical acclaim, with many outlets comparing his work to that of John Le Carré. Before setting pen to paper, Jones spent eleven years in the shoes of his protagonist, Ben Webster, working for one of the world’s largest business intelligence agencies.

Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Chris. For me, An Agent of Deceit, comes across as an old-fashioned spy novel, of the type you don’t really see any more, in a very modern setting. But it still has a very “Cold War”, east versus west, feel to it. Can you talk us through where the idea came from, and how you set about constructing the complex plot?

The very first idea I had, revolving in my head in a quiet way for years, was the predicament of one of the main characters, Richard Lock, who has almost inadvertently signed away his identity, and in the process his life, to hide the criminal gains of a sinister Russian bureaucrat. In my old work I used to come across Locks almost every day – lawyers and accountants whose job it was to set up complex networks of companies offshore. Some of them, like Lock, sell themselves completely and pretend to own things on behalf of others nastier and more powerful than them. I began to wonder who these people were and how they had become what they had become, and slowly one particular such person began to form in my head.

As for the plot: I knew where it began and roughly where it ended, and so the work came in filling out the middle. First I thought through the central story, the relationship between Lock and the investigator who pursues him, and then I introduced the other characters, imagining how they would affect and be affected by events. At one stage I drew up a large chart with the characters across the top and time running down the side and worked out how everyone would interlock. Strangely, it was much easier to plot than my second book, even though in many ways it was more complicated.

That old-fashioned sense is helped along by the fact that Ben Webster, the novel’s protagonist, makes his way through the story – for the most part – without the aid of gadgets, gizmos or even modern technology. With the exception of the frequent mention of mobile phones, this is a story that could have happened prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Was this a conscious decision you made at the outset and, if so, why?

No, strangely. It developed like that. I knew that London and Moscow, the home cities of the two protagonists, would be the two poles of the book, and toyed with various ideas for the location of the book’s final third. Then it became clear that it had to be Berlin – partly because it made sense in plot terms, but also because Berlin is neither east nor west, and was therefore the perfect place for Lock’s dual allegiances to be tested. So I became aware of the old-fashionedness late on.

An Agent of Deceit takes a slightly unusual approach to the spy novel in that it devotes equal airtime to the points of view of both hunter (Webster) and hunted (Richard Lock). Did you find one character more difficult to write than the other, and how much of each character were you able to build from your own experience in the business intelligence community?

Webster was more difficult to write. As you suggest, the book is written from the two protagonists’ perspectives, which alternate throughout. It turned out that this was an excellent structure for a first book, because it established a steady rhythm, but its one flaw, I now realise, was that because Webster is so busy hunting, and making the action of the book happen, we get to know him less well. We get to observe Lock in a more natural state, in a way, and I think he feels more rounded as a result. This is something that with luck the second book addresses.

And while what Webster does is a pretty accurate amalgam of what people in my old world do, the characters themselves aren’t drawn from a single model. They’re both fictional creations, and to be honest neither particularly resembles anyone I know in life.

There have been plenty of comparisons between your work and the novels of John Le Carré, which is presumably not a bad thing for a first-time author to hear. As I read the book, I found myself comparing Webster to that other great fictional spy, Bernie Samson – more everyman than Old Boys’ Network, the obsession and doggedness. Can you talk about the influence these two giants of the genre – Le Carré and Deighton – have had on your own writing?

I’m not sure it’s possible to unpick one’s influences. Le Carré and Deighton are both writers I enjoy enormously, and admire, but I think others might be better placed to spot the correspondences. One very nice reader compared the book to Eric Ambler, which was another tremendous compliment. What they all have in common is the sense of a secret world occupying a dimension right next to but invisible from our own, which is definitely something worth emulating. They’re probably all in there somewhere, along with some writers of detective fiction. Rex Stout, a name not heard often in the UK, definitely had an influence on the structure, even though his books – brilliant comic detective novels – are entirely different.

And before we move on to more general questions…are we likely to see Ben Webster again? Can you talk about what you’re working on at the minute?

I’ve finished a new Webster novel. It’s called The Jackal’s Share and will be published in hardback early next year. As I said, this time we spend more time with him, and his trials are rather different and more acute. The story is entirely new, though – it isn’t strictly a sequel.

For the third book I’m planning to write about the same world, but to shift the focus to a different character within it. And Russia hoves back into view.

What other authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Rex Stout, as mentioned above. James Lee Burke, a brilliant writer of crime thrillers, for want of a better word (he’s much too good to need a genre tag). Then there are all the writers I’d like to think I might be influenced by in some small way. Robert Louis Stevenson is probably top of that list. Line by line I’m not sure he’s ever been bettered, and his stories and plotting are sublime. There’s a reason that Treasure Island is still such a thrilling book.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

Heavens. Apart from Treasure Island, probably The Count of Monte Cristo, which is probably the most compelling story I’ve ever read. It makes a thousand pages seem like fifty.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Chris Morgan Jones look like?

That’s an excellent question. The ideal writing day involves getting up early, around 5.30, writing for a couple of hours before the children wake up, going back to it from 9 until lunchtime, and then squeezing in another three hours or so from 4 till 7 (in the middle of the day my brain stops). In reality all sorts of things get in the way, and when they don’t, I do.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Carve out some time. This is easier said than done, of course. The luckiest break I got was being able to write the first few chapters of the book while looking for a new job, and without the uninterrupted work that allowed I’m not sure I’d have completed the task.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’ve been reading an extraordinary book about parallel universes by a brilliant writer on physics called Brian Greene. The book is The Hidden Reality. It sounds ridiculously difficult, and it is – every morning I’ve forgotten what I read the night before. But it’s truly fascinating and has the advantage of having no characters and plots in it, which is sometimes a relief.

Would you like to see An Agent of Deceit make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

I’ve thought about it, but to be honest not to that degree of detail. There’s Tomas Alfredson, who directed the brilliant vampire movie Let The Right One In, but then he went and directed the equally good Tinker Tailor, and he might feel he’s had enough spies.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Now that’s fun. M. R. James, the ghost story writer. We’d have to meet in an empty house somewhere on the Suffolk coast and we’d talk about his most terrifying creations. I would need whisky.

Thank you once again, Chris, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

Chris will be appearing at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival on Friday 20th July.

AN AGENT OF DECEIT by Chris Morgan Jones

an-agent-of-deceit- AN AGENT OF DECEIT

Chris Morgan Jones (www.chrismorganjones.com)

Pan Books (www.panmacmillan.com)

£7.99

There seems to be cyclic nature to the popularity of certain, seemingly long-dead, genres. In recent years we have seen upsurges in the popularity of westerns and pirates, for example, while the most recent rebirth, helped along greatly by Tomas Alfredson’s big screen adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is in the spy fiction genre. Not since before the fall of the Iron Curtain have we had so much choice in this area, and Chris Morgan Jones is one of the new names making waves. An Agent of Deceit is his first novel, and takes the somewhat unusual approach of constructing a spy novel around a spy who works in the business intelligence community, rather than a government-run institution.

Richard Lock has spent almost fifteen years constructing and running a network of companies which form the external face of Russian oligarch Konstantin Malin’s empire. Lock has done his job well – none of the companies can be traced back to their true owner – and has been paid well for his efforts. When a Greek oil tycoon hires Ikertu Consulting to look into the affairs of Malin, investigator Ben Webster finds that the best place to start looking is the network of companies outside of Russia, and that the weakest link in Malin’s chain is Richard Lock. Spurred on by personal reasons, and by the murder of one of Malin’s retired lieutenants, Webster attempts to secure the defection of a man looking for a way out from under one of Russia’s most dangerous men.

An Agent of Deceit has the feel of an old-fashioned spy novel. With the action focussing on London, Moscow and Berlin, it certainly fits the mould of the Cold War-era spy thrillers. Jones takes the novel of approach of alternating chapters between hunter (Webster) and hunted (Lock), giving us both sides of this complex but engaging story. Webster, ex-journalist turned corporate spy, is a strong lead, and comes across as something of an “everyman”, more Bernard Samson than George Smiley. His position as investigator in business intelligence consultancy Ikertu makes more sense in this post-Cold War world than a similar position in MI-6, but the Russian element, and the Berlin setting of much of the action harks back to an older time, a more divided Europe. Lock is a man out of his depth and struggling to find an escape route. As investigators close in, and focus their attention on his businesses, he starts to panic, wondering just how indispensible he is to Malin. He is a surprisingly likeable character, and we find ourselves rooting for him as his world begins to unravel.

The plot is as complex as Lock’s network of companies, but Jones’ fresh approach and somewhat brusque writing style ensure that proceedings are kept moving, and that the reader is never left confused by jargon or details. As the various threads begin to interweave, and the story moves towards its climax, the pace kicks up a notch and the reader is left breathless and wanting more. The climax, when it arrives, is as tense and thrilling as it is unexpected – the pieces of this finely-constructed mystery fall into place, and the bigger picture is revealed to the reader – and the protagonists – for the first time. It’s an accomplished coup de grace, a very pleasant surprise from a freshman writer who seems already to be on top of his craft.

With the exception of mobile phones – which play a large and important part of the plot – Webster manages to proceed with his investigation without the aid of the gadgets and gizmos that the Bond films have led us to expect from spy adventures. It’s a nice touch (although an unplanned one, according to the author) that gives this novel its old-fashioned feel, and provides us with a story that could well have happened prior to the fall of the Berlin wall. It’s perfect, then, for fans of Le Carré and Deighton and brings a fine tradition into the twenty-first century, giving it a new lease of life in the process.

Chris Morgan Jones brings with him a wealth of real-life experience in the field in which he writes, and this shines through in the details. An Agent of Deceit is a wonderful start to his writing career: it’s an old-world spy adventure that is at once intelligent and thrilling. In Ben Webster we find a sympathetic character – a family man, a man of principles – who forms the heart of the narrative and makes us care about what happens next. There is no doubt about it: spies are back, and Chris Morgan Jones is at the forefront of the push, an exciting young writer with fresh new ideas for an old, but extremely popular, genre.

SORRY by Zoran Drvenkar

SORRY - Zoran Drvenkar SORRY

Zoran Drvenkar (www.drvenkar.de)

Translated by Shaun Whiteside

Blue Door (www.harpercollins.co.uk/…/blue-door)

£12.99

I will admit that when I saw the cover of Zoran Drvenkar’s Sorry – the first of the German author’s novels to be translated into English – my first thought was that it was a novel aimed at a young adult audience. What lies behind that stark white cover – or the stark black version, which is just as striking – is much darker, and more complex than I had imagined; “young adult” it most certainly is not.

A group of four Berlin friends approaching the end of their twenties decide to open an agency that will apologise on your behalf. They decide immediately that they will only take on corporate commissions and, under the leadership of Kris, a young man who knows exactly what to say, they find themselves earning more money than they could have dreamed. They move to a villa on the shores of the Wannsee and make it both home and base of operations. When Wolf, Kris’ younger brother, arrives at an appointment on the top floor of an apartment block in the run-down Kreuzberg area, he has no way of knowing what lies in wait for him, and what consequences it will have for his life, and for the lives of his friends. A woman hangs on the wall, one nail through her crossed wrists, another through her forehead, at her feet a paper bag containing a threat that means Wolf cannot just walk away; their job is to apologise to this dead woman, and then to clean up the murderer’s mess.

Drvenkar uses multiple points of view to tell the story of this group of young people and the man who has decided to use them for his own ends. Using first, second and third-person narratives, the author sows confusion in the mind of the reader, leaving us unsure of whom to trust until the story reaches its dark and violent climax. As the story progresses, and we come to know these characters who are moving slowly into darker territory, towards an inevitable evil, we start to learn some of the murderer’s motivations; it’s an unpleasant story of ritual child abuse – sometimes graphically described – by two very unpleasant characters, spanning the course of several years. Sorry is a tough and at times unpleasant read, but ultimately, as the pieces slot into place, and we learn exactly what is going on, it is also a very rewarding read.

It will take some time to become used to the multiple viewpoints. It’s easy to make assumptions – something that the reader should avoid at all costs – about story portions told in the first or second person, especially when for the vast majority of the book, the killer is referred to as “You”; it’s a disconcerting feeling, which adds to the overall atmosphere.

You drive the nail through the bone of her forehead. It takes you four more blows than the hands did, before the nail pierces the back of her head and enters the wall. She twitches, her twitch becomes a quiver, then she hangs still.

The book does have some problems, and it is almost a shame to mention them. At least one important thread seems to remain unresolved, something that may well have been done by design. It is difficult to describe in any more detail than that without including spoilers. There are also times when the narrative seems quite clunky. For the most part, the story is told in the present tense, with past tense used where appropriate to describe things that have already happened. There are places – and more than a few – where tenses become interchangeable across the course of a handful of sentences, sometimes leaving the reader to try and parse exactly what is happening. It’s difficult to work out, though, if this is down to the complexity of the writing, or slips in the translation. As I said, it’s almost a shame to mention them, and neither of these points is unlikely to mar the enjoyment of this excellent novel.

Sorry is a cleverly-plotted piece of intrigue. Drvenkar is a writer who is sure of what he’s doing, and proves it by constantly surprising even this most jaded reader of crime fiction. It’s a dark and violent novel that, because of some elements, will not appeal to everyone; it should, however, find many fans outside the crime genre: there are times when Sorry teeters on the edge of horror. Despite the aforementioned clunkiness, the excellent story – original, exciting and very well-conceived – shines through to make this a must-read for fans of tough, gruesome fiction. Drvenkar is a prolific writer, but Sorry is his first novel to receive an English translation. It’s unlikely it will be the last time we see his name on British bookshelves and, if he can continue telling stories like this, it won’t be long before he becomes a permanent fixture on my own must-read list.

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