The Girl in Berlin by Elizabeth Wilson
In reading The Girl in Berlin by Elizabeth Wilson (Serpent’s Tail, 2013), I find myself in a slightly unusual situation. When I read historical fiction about the time I lived through, I’m usually able to relate what I read to my own experience. Yet this book describes what might just as well be a foreign land. It’s set in May, 1951 in London. Along with large numbers of other provincials, I came down to the Festival of Britain during the summer of 1951 so, like many other gawking tourists, I viewed the superficialities of the rebuilt and restored buildings in the central area. It was a time of great excitement for us, belying the usual hardship of austerity times. Yet this book adopts a setting closed off to rubes like me. This is the world of London privilege in which people know people of the right class and type, patriarchy rules, and it’s far too infra dig to mention the Festival (although going to Wimbledon is so U, darling). So, for example, we have Dinah Wentworth, the wife of a BBC producer, breaking with tradition and “getting a job”. Except it isn’t a paying job. She’s volunteering at The Courthauld. In narrative terms, it’s an excuse for her to meet real-world Anthony Blunt before he was outed, but how realistic is this?
My mother worked as a teacher, paused to produce me, and then went back to work. She earned a good rate of pay for her services and contributed to the joint bank account. The relationship described in this book seems faintly unreal. Her pathetically unfaithful husband, Alan Wentworth, is apparently unaware no money is coming in. Rather he spends money on himself and mistress as if there’s no need to consider his wife at all. In the North, the wives of the wealthy were either working at good jobs or heavily into socialising with occasional outbursts of charity work. By my standards, this man isn’t really the right class or wealth level to be having this argument with his wife. The only individual who even vaguely resonates with me is the ostensible hero, Jack McGovern, a Scot of modest abilities who’s trying to live down his working class roots and make his way on merit as a policeman and occasional spy. I used to meet men like him as they stopped off in my neck of the woods on their way down south. There was always an air of desperation about them. They knew life would not be a real improvement, but they felt they had to give it a try.
Perhaps I was being a bit dim (nothing unusual there, you might say) but, for almost half the book, I was not sure what the author was trying to achieve. At one level, it’s an historical recreation of the time when Burgess and Maclean slipped their leashes and decamped to Russia (ironic pun intended because they would have to be less obviously camp in Russia). We have a snapshot of life in both London and Berlin. I suppose we could see a parallel with The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming whose novel is based on the premise there was an addition to the original five Russian spies operating in Britain. That’s more explicitly exploring the reality of the spying activities through the lens of fiction. This is rather more prosaic, perhaps less ambitious. Thanks to Miles Kingdom, one of these British MI5 spooks, the focus of attention is Colin Harris who fled England after his conviction for murder was quashed, only now to return from Berlin at this time of paranoia in the security services. That he’s seen with Konrad Eberhardt who’s body is later found in a canal is indicative not all is well. Perhaps this has something to do with Eberhardt’s autobiography which might name names at this inconvenient time. So Jack McGovern is encouraged to see his investigation as a sideshow to the main event. Everyone who matters is running around like headless chickens because Burgess and Maclean have disappeared. While that’s all going on, our Scottish “hero” is tasked with investigating Harris and this woman he’s proposing to marry in Berlin.
But here’s the problem. Having lived through this time, I’m aware of all the political embarrassments of the day when the spies were unmasked. It had seemed unlikely that men of that class and intelligence would spy for an enemy of Britain. There was this assumption of loyalty from them, bred in the bone, as it were. But readers today, particularly foreign readers, will come without any background or understanding of the impact these revelations had. So the fact this book underplays the context for the action is odd. Strip away the context and the plot is a bit thin. Harris may be a spy. He might have murdered Eberhardt. Then there are the Wentworths and the other people he knows in London who used to be Communist “sympathisers”. Special Branch seems strangely uninvolved. MI5 and 6 are in defensive mode. There doesn’t seem to be urgency in the investigation either in its own right or as a possible tie-in to the Burgess/Maclean defection. For much of the time, matters seem to drift somewhat inconclusively. Making this worse is the extended time allocated to the Wentworths. This couple with their vague association with Communists and Socialists before the war never meet the ostensible hero. They are within the purview of Miles Kingdom.
Having arrived at the end, I see what the author is trying to do, but I think the balance of the book is wrong. If this is an historical espionage story, we should focus on that and explain the political context for modern readers. If it’s a story about the people who lived through the period, then focusing on their lives and all the gossip about Anthony Blunt, the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean, and so on, makes perfect sense. Sadly, the juxtaposition of the two narrative threads never generates any synergy. Indeed, I would go so far as to say the author falls between the two stools. Let’s be clear. There is, of course, a villain. His or her activities are vicious and dark so “justice” must prevail. It would have been perfectly possible to write an espionage thriller in which the villain was unmasked. Equally, it would have been possible to write a Cold War London thriller in which the villain is caught. Because this book can’t make up its mind, it produces an ending where neither part of the narrative is properly contextualised and resolved. It’s a shame. Elizabeth Wilson writes well but her plotting seriously lets her down.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.