#BookReview The Unfortunate Englishman (Joe Wilderness #2) by John Lawton @groveatlantic

The Unfortunate EnglishmanAbout the Book

Berlin, 1963. East End-Londoner turned spy Joe Wilderness has had better days. He is sitting in a West Berlin jail, arrested for shooting someone he thought was about to kill him. His old boss, Lieutenant Burne-Jones of MI6, comes to Berlin to free him, but only under the condition that he rejoin British Intelligence. The knowledge that Wilderness gained of Berlin’s underworld while working the black market just after World War II will prove useful to Queen and country now that the city has become the epicenter of the Cold War, dividing the world in two with its wall.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, another MI6 man, Geoffrey Masefield, is ruing the day he first agreed to be a spy. In the beginning, it had all seemed so simple, so glamorous: the international travel, the top secret files, the vodka, the women. . . . But now Masefield is stuck in Lubyanka, the KGB’s Moscow prison, waiting for a lifeline from his former employer. Meanwhile, over in England, a Russian spy is pining for his homeland. Having lived as Bernard Forbes Campbell Alleyn for years and taken a wife and had two daughters under that alias, he’s now been exposed as KGB Captain Leonid Liubimov. Arrested for treason and then for espionage, he is in prison at Wormwood Scrubs, London. The only ticket out for these two men is a spy exchange.

Posted back to Berlin, Wilderness is to oversee the exchange of Masefield and Liubimov, but his black market nous hasn’t diminished. There’s money to be made and ten thousand bottles of fine Bordeaux that Wilderness hasn’t forgotten about.

Format: Hardcover (368 pages)   Publisher: Grove Press
Publication date: 5th May 2016  Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The Unfortunate Englishman is the second book in the author’s Joe Wilderness series, the follow-up to Then We Take Berlin. I listened to the audiobook version of that in 2020 and you can read my review here. I was fortunate enough to win a copy of the third book in the series, Hammer To Fall, from Readers First last year so I thought it was about time I read its predecessor (a copy of which I spotted in my local Oxfam bookshop).

The book’s opening chapter continues directly on from the final scene in Then We Take Berlin. Once more Joe Holderness (known to his friends as Wilderness) is in a scrape and on course to get a tongue lashing from his wife Judy, if and when he gets home. (By the way, I love Judy. She always knows when Joe’s up to something nefarious, dangerous, or both.)

Then it’s back to 1945 and the story of how a KGB agent managed to assume the identity of another man, Bernard Alleyn, and live undiscovered for nearly fifteen years, all the time passing secrets back to the Soviet Union until he is unmasked.

Moving forward to 1960, Wilderness is involved in recruiting business man and metallurgy expert Geoffrey Masefield to travel to the Soviet Union as part of a trade delegation in the hope of discovering information about the Soviets missile capability. The storyline is reminiscent of the case of Greville Wynne, arrested as a spy and sentenced to eight years in a Soviet prison. (His experiences have recently been dramatized – with quite a lot of artistic licence – in the film The Courier, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.) Wilderness disappears from the picture in this part of the book, the focus instead on Masefield’s time in Moscow. Masefield is rather the innocent abroad, fulfilling his boyhood dream of becoming spy yet a little disappointed that it’s not quite like in the James Bond books. He’s rather easy prey for the KGB who know exactly how to take advantage of a man’s weaknesses.

There’s a brief trip back in time to Berlin in 1947 to discover more about those ten thousand bottles of Bordeaux before the book picks up where it started, with Burne-Jones rescuing Wilderness from a Berlin jail in 1963. After a few frustrating years shuffling paperwork, Wilderness is ordered to return to Berlin to oversee the spy exchange.  As you might expect, not everything goes to plan, especially when Wilderness encounters two old sparring partners from the past plus the woman who, for a brief time, captured his heart. Perhaps he should have heeded the advice of his friend Eddie: “Joe, Berlin has been a disaster area for you. It’s marked on the map with a big black cross and a sign saying ‘here be dragons’.”

Although written five years ago, the book seems surprisingly up-to-date. Proving nothing much changes, the failure of the Americans and British to anticipate the construction of the Berlin wall cutting off West Berlin is described as a ‘failure of intelligence’. Where have we heard that recently? And no doubt Burne-Jones’s observation that ‘it is far better to say nothing and appear ignorant than to admit we knew and appear futile’ still applies as well.

I loved the brief appearance by a character from the author’s other series and also how the title of the book could be interpreted in a number of ways.  Is ‘the unfortunate Englishman’ Alleyn, separated from his family and languishing in a British jail, Masefield, the inept spy captured by the Soviets, or even Wilderness, more at home in the field than behind a desk?

The author clearly has a love of short chapters – The Unfortunate Englishman has 171! – but it’s a classy, perfectly paced spy thriller with great period atmosphere and a plot which is a satisfying blend of the personal and the political. I can’t wait to pluck Hammer To Fall off my bookshelf and get stuck in.

The Unfortunate Englishman is book 19 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021. Nearly there!

In three words: Gripping, pacy, action-packed

Try something similar: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré

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John LawtonAbout the Author

John Lawton worked for Channel 4 for many years. He is the author of Then We Take Berlin, the first in the Joe Wilderness series. He has also written seven novels in his Troy series, the standalone novel, Sweet Sunday, a couple of short stories, and the occasional essay. He writes very slowly and almost on the hoof in the USA or Italy, but professes to be a resident of a tiny village in the Derbyshire Peak District. (Photo credit: Goodreads author page)

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#BookReview Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré

Agent Running in the FieldAbout the Book

Nat, a 47 year-old veteran of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, believes his years as an agent runner are over. He is back in London with his wife, the long-suffering Prue. But with the growing threat from Moscow Centre, the office has one more job for him. Nat is to take over The Haven, a defunct substation of London General with a rag-tag band of spies. The only bright light on the team is young Florence, who has her eye on Russia Department and a Ukrainian oligarch with a finger in the Russia pie.

Nat is not only a spy, he is a passionate badminton player. His regular Monday evening opponent is half his age: the introspective and solitary Ed. Ed hates Brexit, hates Trump and hates his job at some soulless media agency. And it is Ed, of all unlikely people, who will take Prue, Florence and Nat himself down the path of political anger that will ensnare them all.

Format: Paperback (384 pages)        Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: 20th August 2020 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Thriller, Espionage

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My Review

The author’s decision to include a character with such fervently anti-Brexit and anti-Trump views as Ed Shannon is likely to divide opinion, especially as one suspects they are the barely disguised views of the author himself. But at least Ed’s views are clear and firmly held, or so Nat believes. This is in contrast to the self-serving attitude of many of Nat’s colleagues, who seem more interested in climbing the next rung on the career ladder or securing a lucrative pension. This includes his odious boss, Dominic (the choice of name, replicating that of the Prime Minister’s former chief advisor, is surely no coincidence). Only Nat’s young colleague, Florence, seems driven by her moral convictions.

Although he doesn’t know it at the time, his meeting with Ed will give Nat the opportunity to do what he does best. As he says himself, he’s ‘a field man, not a desk jockey’. Nat definitely isn’t prepared to take a back seat, unless that’s in the rear of a laundry van filled with high-tech surveillence equipment.

Though the book doesn’t quite have the atmosphere of the author’s Cold War thrillers such as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold or A Small Town in Germany (two of my personal favourites), there are scenes which come close. For example, the episode in which Nat travels to Prague to meet former agent, Arkady, or the tense scene in the Control Room as a complex surveillance operation gets underway.

The book contains the “tradecraft” that le Carré fans have come to expect – dead letter drops, encoded messages using one-time pads, abort/go signals for meetings, and invisible writing concealed in seemingly innocuous correspondence. And the job of an agent or handler being what it is, a cover story may be needed even for a game of badminton. However, this being the age of oversight and budgets, the book also demonstrates the often lengthy process of gaining financial and operational approval for surveillance and other covert operations from the various gatekeepers in the Service.

I liked the fact that in this book the author gives the reader a glimpse into Nat’s family life and the strain of having to keep so much about his work secret. For instance, Nat’s struggle to maintain his relationship with his idealistic daughter Steff demonstrates the difficulty of fulfilling the role of caring father whilst at the same time concealing the true nature of his work. Nat’s wife Prue, a human rights lawyer, knows more about Nat’s real role than anyone else but even so still needs to call on her seemingly infinite supply of patience when yet another late night telephone call calls Nat away. And, as Nat acknowledges, when he finds himself into trouble it’s Prue’s resourcefulness that comes to the rescue. ‘At which juncture Prue does what Prue always does, just when I think she has finally run out of patience with me: steps back, takes a second reading of the situation and sets about fixing it.’

The book’s satisfyingly intricate plot encompasses everything from Ukranian oligarchs, double agents and the fallout from Brexit to Anglo-American relations in the age of Donald Trump. There were a few literary tics that grated such as Nat’s repeated use of the term chers collègues when referring to the other employees of the Haven (pretentious, moi?). However, overall I enjoyed my return to the world of espionage conjured up by John le Carré.

Agent Running in the Field is one of the books selected for the current series of the BBC2 programme Between The Covers, the nearest many of us can get to participating in a book club at the moment.

In three words: Assured, suspenseful, detailed

Try something similar: A Legacy of Spies by John le Carre

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John le CarreAbout the Author

John le Carré was born in 1931. For six decades, he wrote novels that came to define our age. The son of a confidence trickster, he spent his childhood between boarding school and the London underworld. At sixteen he found refuge at the university of Bern, then later at Oxford. A spell of teaching at Eton led him to a short career in British Intelligence (MI5&6).

He published his debut novel, Call for the Dead, in 1961 while still a secret servant. His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, secured him a worldwide reputation, which was consolidated by the acclaim for his trilogy Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. At the end of the Cold War, le Carré widened his scope to explore an international landscape including the arms trade and the War on Terror. His memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, was published in 2016 and the last George Smiley novel, A Legacy of Spies, appeared in 2017.

He died on 12 December 2020. (Bio credit: Publisher author page/Photo credit: Goodreads)