There's a neat conceit, albeit an unlikely one, to Joseph Kanon's new thriller, Leaving Berlin. Alex Meier, a German Jewish socialist writer, escapes the Nazis by the skin of his teeth in 1933 - his family perish in the Holocaust - and builds a new life in Hollywood's German community.
But when Meier refuses to dob in his Communist friends during the McCarthy Red Scare, he is deported to Berlin, with promises that if he works as a CIA agent he will be allowed to return to Santa Monica and his young son.
Meier arrives in January 1949. Berlin is a desolate, wrecked city, ground zero in the fast intensifying Cold War between the US and its allies and Soviet Russia. The Berlin airlift is in full swing and Stalin wants an atomic bomb. Greeted as a literary lion come home, along with luminaries like Bertolt Brecht, to help birth the Soviet sector's new workers' paradise, Meier juggles propaganda duties with espionage, as he seeks out his former lover, Irene von Bernuth, a Junker's daughter, now a Soviet security man's mistress, to pump her for pillow talk about the secret A-bomb programme.
Things go wrong from the off. Within hours of his arrival Meier narrowly escapes death at a meeting with his CIA handler, shooting an enemy agent. The reluctant spy is quickly enmeshed in a labyrinthine plot, smuggling a fugitive German POW to the West, even as K5 - the forerunner of East Germany's Stasi secret police - tries to recruit Meier as an informer and fellow emigres vanish in one of Stalin's purges.
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Kanon has visited Berlin's noir wasteland, peopled by spies, unrepentant Nazis and cynical Berliners, before in The Good German, and deftly depicts the shadow world spooks have wrestled with in Cold War thrillers since John le Carre and Len Deighton.
But unlike, say, the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr, whose homicide cop walks the mean streets of the Nazi Inferno (Kerr has Gunther escape the same slave labour uranium mine as Irene's young brother, Erich), Kanon's Berlin tale never quite jells, sunk by improbable plot twists as Meier morphs overnight from a novice into a resourceful agent able to best ruthless foes, as if the amateur spy from
The 39 Steps
had stumbled into the Orwellian nightmare of Stasiland.
It is a stretch that might seem more believable as a fast-paced Hollywood thriller than a classic Berlin spy tale.
Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon
(Simon & Schuster $32.99)