cover image Leaving Berlin

Leaving Berlin

Joseph Kanon. Atria, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-1-4767-0464-7

In his new novel, Kanon (Istanbul Passage) stays firmly in his traditional milieu%E2%80%94intrigue in post-World War II Europe%E2%80%94with this solid story about a German emigre, Alex Meier, returning to the divided city of East Berlin in 1949. It's not an entirely voluntary return for Meier, a successful novelist who had been working in Hollywood: a refusal to testify about Communists before Congress results in the forced repatriation; if he wants to return to the States, he must become a spy. The book is full of real-life historical figures, mostly writers like Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Zweig, and Ruth Berlau who are, like the fictional Meier, warmly welcomed home by the Communists. Meier's assignment is to spy on the cultural apparatus of East Germany and, in particular, to investigate a state security bigwig, Major General Maltsev, the consort of Elspeth von Bernuth, one of his childhood friends. There's a fair amount of action, including a shootout in a dark street that results in a shocking act of violence, but the appeal of the book is how it conjures the atmosphere of post-War Europe, in the vein of Alan Furst and David Downing. There's too much backstory and the period details sometimes bog down the narrative, but once all the pieces are in place the story hits its stride. Kanon likes to wrestle with the moral dimensions of spying (a la le Carr%C3%A9)%E2%80%94and what's more, he's very good at it. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM Partners. (Mar.)