The Unfortunate Englishman by John Lawton

‘Wilderness had done stupid things in his time.’

I’ve just read the third instalment in the Joe Wilderness series (‘Hammer to Fall’).  Somehow, I’d missed the second instalment.  Not good enough, I said to myself, and borrowed a copy.

I like well-written Cold War fiction: it brings back memories of a different uncertain world, and Joe Wilderness is fast becoming a favourite character. 

This novel opens in Berlin in 1963.  Wilderness, by then a former MI6 operative, accidently shoots a woman.  He’s locked up.  His father-in-law Alec Burne-Jones, a senior officer at MI6, arranges his release.  But there’s a twist: Wilderness has to agree to re-join MI6. 

Berlin is now divided.  The West on one side, the Soviets on the other.  Tensions between the USA and the USSR concerns in the UK and the USA about the USSR’s growing nuclear capacity.  Some things haven’t changed: the black-market skills Joe developed during World War II are still with him, as are some of those who worked with him.  A spy exchange, and the collection of ten thousand bottles of Bordeaux.  Plenty of intrigue, lots of machinations.

There are two unfortunate Englishmen in this novel:  Geoffrey Masefield, imprisoned in the Lubyanka and Bernard Alleyn (alias KGB Captain Leonid Liubimov), imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs.  In 1965, a prisoner exchange is proposed.  And Joe is posted back to Berlin to oversee the exchange. 

The story shifts between places, characters and timelines. The stories of Masefield and Alleyn (Liubimov) and their capture, the events they are part of.  There are opportunities for those able to take advantage, and traps for the unwary. 

If you like novels set in the Cold War period, enjoy intrigue and humour, and you’ve not already read this series I can strongly recommend it.  I now need to track down and read Mr Lawton’s Inspector Troy series.  I’m looking forward to it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith