Cover image of "Leaving Berlin," a novel of the early Cold War

Joseph Kanon’s historical spy novels reek of authenticity. Set in the years immediately following World War II, they conjure up the fear and desperation that hung over Europe in the early days of the Cold War. Then, it seemed as though open war might well break out between the two erstwhile allies, now both emerging superpowers. And Leaving Berlin brilliantly conveys that atmosphere. Kanon has chosen as his setting the bleakest possible time and place: rubble-choked Berlin in 1949 as the Allied airlift to the isolated western zone of the city was underway. It was before West Germany was created. Before the Wall went up, when the border between East and West was still porous. And before Walter Ulbricht’s East German regime had begun shooting at will at everyone who crossed into the American, British, or French zones. At least as effectively as any work of history, Leaving Berlin casts light on the early Cold War.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blackmail and murder in the early Cold War

Kanon’s protagonist is Alex Meier, a German-born American writer of considerable note who returns to East Germany. There, he falls into the open arms of the growing literary community that circles around Bertolt Brecht, an earlier returnee. Unbeknownst to the regime, however, Meier has cut a deal with the CIA to be welcomed back to the US despite having defied the House Un-American Activities Committee—if he will spy on the East Germans. Then, almost immediately after returning to East Berlin, Meier finds himself caught up in the murder of an East German agent, and his life becomes more fraught with danger with every passing day.

Like the work of Alan Furst, Kanon’s novels combine suspenseful plotting and a love story with complex character studies and abundant atmospherics. In Leaving Berlin, he’s at the top of his game. This book is suspenseful to the end.

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon (2014) 385 pages ★★★★★

Photo of US cargo plane landing in the Berlin Airlift,
Schoolchildren and other West Berliners watch an American cargo plane land at Tempelhof Airport during an early stage in the Berlin Airlift. This was one of more than 250,000 flights to deliver supplies to the city in defiance of the Soviet blockade. Image: Wikipedia

The historical background

World War II left Berlin in shambles. After 363 air raids by the RAF and the US Eighth Air Force, plus heavy bombardment by Soviet artillery as the Red Army closed in, much of the divided city survived only as heaps of rubble. And little had been rebuilt by 1948, when Josef Stalin ordered a blockade of West Berlin in an effort to seize control of the whole city. A defiant President Harry Truman ordered an airlift to deliver supplies to relieve the city’s 2.5 million people. Over eleven months, from June 24, 1948 to May 12, 1949, the US and British military flew more than 250,000 flights over Berlin, delivering a total of 2.3 million tons of supplies. They dropped as many as 12,900 tons of food and fuel in a single day. Stalin lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949, to end the embarrassment. But the airlift continued until September 30 that year. Thus was set the pattern of tit-for-tat exchanges in the early Cold War.

About the author

Photo of Joseph Kanon, author of
Joseph Kanon in Berlin. Image: Robin Straus – Andrew Nurnberg Associates

The bio on Joseph Kanon‘s author website focuses on his writing career: “Joseph Kanon is the internationally bestselling author of ten novels, which have been published in twenty-four languages: Los Alamos, which won the Edgar Award for best first novel; The Good German, which was made into a film starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett; The Prodigal SpyAlibi, which earned Kanon the Hammett Award of the International Association of Crime Writers; Leaving Berlin and Defectors. He is also a recipient of The Anne Frank Human Writers Award for his writings on the aftermath of the Holocaust. Before becoming a full-time writer, he was a book publishing executive. He lives in New York City with his wife, literary agent Robin Straus. They have two sons.”

Wikipedia adds that Kanon was born in 1946 and studied at Harvard University and Trinity College of the University of Cambridge. He was the editor in chief, CEO, and president of the publishing houses Houghton Mifflin and E. P. Dutton in New York. He began writing in 1995, when he was nearly fifty years of age. His first novel, Los Alamos, was published in 1997.

For related reading     

For my reviews of all of this author’s espionage novels, see Joseph Kanon’s spy thrillers are superb.

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