historical spy novels: Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon’s 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, when it seemed as though open war might well break out between the two emerging superpowers, erstwhile allies.

For Leaving Berlin, Kanon has chosen as his setting the bleakest possible time and place: rubble-strewn Berlin in 1949 as the Allied airlift to embattled West Berlin 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 Walter Ulbricht’s East German regime had yet to begin shooting at will at everyone who crossed into the American, British, or French zones.

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

Kanon’s protagonist is Alex Meier, a German-born American writer of considerable note who returns to East Germany 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.

For additional reading     

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

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