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A new thriller by a master in the tradition of Grahame Greene and John LeCarre

Leaving Berlin

By Joseph Kanon

Atria Books

371 pages, $27

By Janice Okun


It’s a grim and gray city that Alex Meier enters in Joseph Kanon’s newest thriller.

It’s January 1949, and an edgy Berlin is divided into four sectors by its occupiers – the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union.

All wartime cooperation has disappeared; Berlin is a Cold War zone as the Soviets, trying to force out the other three powers, have set up a blockade that cuts off land access.

Germany itself is yet to become a divided country but the Berlin Airlift is daily fact of life. Supply planes drone overhead constantly. And it’s cold both outdoors and in.

Coal is in limited supply and much of the city is in ruins.

Bomb sites are everywhere.

Nevertheless, competing groups and nations struggle for control. Suspicion, intrigue, secrecy and pure evil come to the fore as the Soviets, Germans and Americans scheme, kidnap, manipulate and sometimes murder. Who’s working for whom? For what? Nothing is simple.

Even an ordinary walk in a park can raise hackles.

It’s that shadowy, uneasy, fearsome ambience the reader takes away from Kanon’s latest work. More so than even the well-drawn plot and the characters.

Alex Meier, somewhat naïve at first, becomes ever more cynical and skillful as the book progresses. A well-known and honorable man, he comes to Berlin from America, where he fled the Nazis at the beginning of World War II.

German-born and Jewish, Meier is a well-known author, but his leftist leanings have gotten him into trouble with the American government. He is being deported from the States; his marriage has crumbled and he has lost custody of his beloved son.

So he has willingly accepted an invitation from the SED, an East Berlin-based cultural organization supported by Russian Communist party. The SED wants Meier to “come home”; it has plans to show Meier off for propaganda purposes. (They are doing the same thing for Bertolt Brecht who plays a cameo role in the book.)

But of course the plot thickens almost immediately. Meier has made a secret arrangement with the CIA to pass on information so that he can return to America. “There is no danger to you,” The agents reassure him.

“Not if you’re careful,”

Meier needs to be careful. When he visits the site of his boyhood house (now a pile of rubble), his CIA handler is killed.

And then he discovers that the love of his life, a German aristocrat named Irene von Bernuth whose family helped him escape the Nazis, is now the mistress of a highly placed Russian in charge of state security.

Meier is expected to spy on both of them.

The situation intensifies. Meier becomes a double agent; Irene’s dying brother escapes from a slave labor camp and must be hidden, then somehow smuggled to the West for medication.

Suspense becomes almost unendurable in a craftily described scene in the newly reconstructed Deutsches Theater where Brecht’s play, “Mother Courage,” is being presented at a gala starring his wife Helene Weigel and all the military commanders including American Lucius Sinks.

Alex must leave in a hurry.

Even more nerve-racking is the chase scene that follows. I’m playing fair here by not telling tell you who is chasing whom – but know that the scene is tautly constructed, just the right length.

The book’s ending? Let us call it “ambivalent.”

Which comes as no surprise. Not for nothing has Kanon – whose previous books include “The Good German,” which was made into a film starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett, has been compared to the suspense masters Graham Greene and John LeCarre.

He’s certainly in the ballpark.

Janice Okun is the former News Food Editor and a dedicated lifelong consumer of thrillers.