I’m not sure who it was that first used this particular formula for good historical fiction – and especially espionage fiction. The idea is that you choose a peculiarly mysterious or ambiguous moment in recent history and then you weave your plot around it.
William Boyd did it very successfully in Any Human Heart, around the ambiguity about the hidden power of the disgraced Duke of Windsor, and again – in Restless – about the Soviet shift after America entered the war.
I have even used it myself around the question of what happened to all those establishment people who were keen on the Nazis in 1938-9, and how they were brought back into the fold – if indeed they were (see The Berlin Affair).
Alex Gerlis has played a similar trick, around how little is known for definite about what the British and Americans told each other about the forthcoming attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and why Hitler made the great mistake of declaring war on the USA at the same time. His answers here are completely believable.
A former BBC man, Gerlis is hardly new to spy fiction – this is his ninth novel – but his ‘wolf pack spy’ series, which this seems to be the curtain-raiser, looks like being a serious success. Though whether he can really rival the depths and insights of John le Carré, as the cover blurb suggests, remains to be seen. What I can say is that I found Agent in Berlin difficult to put down.
To start with, it follows a landed gent, Barney Allen, as he is given the task of building up a network of spies in pre-war Nazi Germany. This has to be done unofficially because the appeasers in charge of the Foreign Office would not countenance such a thing. It then follows one of those agents, an American journalist called Jack Miller who writes about German football for audiences back home.
Gerlis explains how his own love of football became useful in the research and writing of this book. What seems to work about the book is how the readers care about all the spies – about all the wolves in the pack – from the Japanese diplomat to the gay German horse-racing enthusiast, from the wife of a senior officer in the SS to a disaffected group captain in the Luftwaffe, who all in different ways find themselves rather unexpectedly involved in espionage against the Nazis – often barely realising they are doing so.
I found it a hard book to put down and it is certainly deftly written – the details about wartime Berlin are completely believable – and something of the exhaustion of being constantly careful appears now to be permanently fixed in my mind. I can’t wait to read the second book in the Wolf Pack series.