Although John Lawton’s newest book The Unfortunate Englishman (The Atlantic Monthly Press) is the second in his Joe Wilderness series, it works quite well as a standalone novel—though Lawton’s characters are so intriguing, they will undoubtedly send the reader looking for the first in the series, Then We Take Berlin. The Unfortunate Englishman is a spy novel in the best le Carré fashion: no whiz-bang James Bond flash and gadgetry, but rather the chillingly realistic mind-games, intrigue, and political maneuvering of the Cold War era.
The Unfortunate Englishman opens with the main character, Joe Wilderness, mistakenly shooting someone in what he thought was self-defense (nothing is ever what it seems), and landing in a West Berlin Prison in early 1963. His only chance for freedom is to sign a pact with the devil, or, in his case, his father-in-law Alec Burne-Jones, who happens to be a senior Agent at M16. Burne-Jones takes the wayward Wilderness back to London and plants him firmly behind a desk. But of course, Joe is again called into action, back to Berlin.
Lawton gives us the compelling back-story of two spies, both unfortunate Englishmen in their own ways, caught on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. It is Joe’s mission to make what is seemingly a simple exchange. But Cold War intrigues are not simple, and when Joe further complicates things by trying to turn a profit on the side, the plan starts to unravel even as it begins.
Although the nonlinear narrative is initially a bit jarring, the stories of the two spies are beautifully done and well written. Lawton deftly picks up the loose ends of the story and weaves them into a captivating narrative that keeps the reader hooked. Along the way, he adds many historical details, providing the reader with an informative and entertaining read.
Kelly Saderholm has written, blogged, and lectured about aspects of the mystery novel. She has moderated panels and presented papers at literary conferences, on both the Mystery Novel and Urban Fantasy. She is currently shifting from writing about mystery fiction to writing actual mystery fiction, and is working on a novel, as well as a non-fiction book dealing with Folklore in the American South. She is a recipient of a Kentucky Foundation for Women grant. She lives in South Central Kentucky with her family and two feline office assistants.
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