Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon is a gripping historical thriller. The book’s plot takes place in Berlin four years after the end of World War II. What makes this novel special is that through an action-packed plot readers gain a glimpse of what it was like at the start of the Cold War, where the Stalinists replaced the Nazis. In many ways it is so realistic people will forget it is a thriller.
The storyline is based on the adventures of Alex Meier, a German whose father was Jewish and who sees himself as a socialist. With the help of his family he escaped to America before the Holocaust. Although he did not have his heart with the Communists he still was swept up by the McCarthy era after refusing to name names to a Congressional committee. To avoid jail and wanting to continue being a celebrity novelist he makes a desperate deal with the CIA. He must return to Berlin, pose as a disenchanted exile, and gather actionable intelligence by spying on a former lover. Alex finds that espionage in Berlin is a fact of life.
Kanon commented to blackfive.net, “Alex does not seem to have his heart in communism. He saw two sides with the Nazis representing the right and the communists representing the left. At one point in the novel Alex refers to having attended a communist meeting in California. He basically went with someone who invited him, but he never becomes a party member or commits to it. I would describe him as a Socialist, partly because he never abandoned his Judaism. When he got caught up in the cross hairs of the McCarthy sweep he got into trouble because of his principled position of not naming anyone else. This ruined his life.”
Throughout the story Kanon shows the characters to be unlikely spies. There are some scenes that might suspend belief as Alex suddenly develops into a master manipulator and is able to handle violence with self-confidence. He is an amazingly fast learner in the art of spy craft, but without this the thriller would be lacking in suspense.
Kanon sets the tone for the readers in the very first pages as he explains in an author’s note about the setting and the various organizations that played a key role in the story. Readers learn through the main female character, Irene, about the double-dealing that is done to survive by working with the different secret organizations. Another character to survive is her brother-in-law, an unapologetic Nazi doctor who worked for the Third Reich’s euthanasia program.
The author noted to blackfive.net, “We must remember that the population in Berlin was dependent on the rations for their survival. There are no jobs or food except what is given out by the occupying forces. How someone answered a questionnaire is one of the ways to determine the amount of rations they received. Irene lied partly for self-preservation, partly because she was devious, and a part for survival. She is damaged by the war, wounded.”
Leaving Berlin is about betrayal, murder, and survival. It is filled with intrigue that reminds readers of a period and place where loyalties were conflicted and political maneuvering was prevalent. This is a must read for its complex, riveting, and intricate plot.