Our Friends in Berlin by Anthony Quinn review – life during wartime

This enjoyable thriller about hunting down Nazi sympathisers is shot through with postmodern melancholy

When we first meet Jack Hoste, one of the two protagonists of Anthony Quinn’s taut new novel, it is London, March 1941, and it is far too early to think of him as a hero. On the contrary, this “unremarkable” man of “no distinguishing features” in his shabby ARP warden’s uniform appears to be carrying on some fairly dirty and dangerous business: at the height of the blitz, Hoste is in the back room of a smoky pub in Cheapside, trying to recruit a Nazi sympathiser to his fifth column and persuade him on to the payroll as a spy for “our friends in Berlin”.

It soon becomes clear that in the early stages of the war those bonds of politics, class, affection or culture that connected a certain British sensibility to pre-war Germany – a place of great music, strong leadership and walking holidays – have not disappeared, but gone underground. Oswald Mosley is in Brixton prison and his wife in Holloway, but a beleaguered few keep the Nazi faith below the radar. It is Hoste’s job to look for them.

This is a fraught and murky business, and even as he walks back through bombed-out streets to find his apartment block reduced to rubble we still have no real idea what Hoste’s game is. It is not until he turns for help to his superior at “the Section”, Philip Traherne, that with wary relief we can allow ourselves to believe that Hoste is not a fifth columnist after all, but a brave man playing a potentially lethal game of bluff: a one-time bank clerk turned double – or is it triple? – agent in the service of the British government. He aims to flush out those sympathetic to the Nazi cause, pose as their “handler” and thwart their plans for conspiracy, assassination or sabotage.

Diana and Oswald Mosley in 1943.
Diana and Oswald Mosley in 1943. Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

At the same time, Hoste has his eyes on a bigger prize: to hunt down the notorious Marita Pardoe, a female spy fanatically committed to the fascist cause who has evaded the attention of the authorities since the beginning of hostilities but is, Hoste is convinced, still at large in Britain. Pardoe is ruthless, brilliant and charismatic and Hoste must find her, convince her of his sympathies and close her down.

Enter our second protagonist, Amy Strallen: strong minded, sharp eyed, independent and single. She is a partner in a Mayfair marriage bureau that is flourishing in the romantic turbulence of the times and, as it happens, was once an intimate of Pardoe’s. Like Hoste, Strallen resists our easy sympathies, not least because of her friendship with Pardoe, but her prickliness, curiosity and compassion keep us attentive. They appeal, too, to Hoste, who must – in an entertaining foray beyond his comfort zone – pose as a lonely heart in order to make use of Strallen to get to Pardoe. So far, so romantically inevitable, but these are times and circumstances in which nothing may be guaranteed. What is certain is that from the moment these two difficult souls meet, the stakes, already high, become personal.

This is a novel set on a historical knife-edge, culminating in the daring Operation Fortitude, in which the allies generated detailed plans for a decoy landing at Calais to mislead German intelligence and distract them from the true locus of D-day.

On one level Our Friends in Berlin is an immensely enjoyable Buchanesque adventure. It deals with the future of nations, has a daring hero, a hint of romance and some thrilling set pieces: tables are turned at the last moment in safe houses and train carriages. But it holds subtler pleasures, too: its descriptions of London under bombardment are vividly sensuous and beautiful, from “muffled explosions like a giant beating a carpet”, to the sweeping up of broken glass the morning after a raid that “sounded like breakers rolling upon a shore”, to the wood-panelled and scented privilege of a Jermyn Street flat. Its characters are intriguing and deftly presented, from the amused, patrician Traherne to the brittle, clever, sad Section handler Tessa Hammond.

Most memorably of all, though, the book and its cast are shot through with a persuasive postmodern melancholy, the hard-wired ambivalence that is very much Le Carré rather than Buchan. This sensibility allows the novel to illuminate complex times. It reveals “our finest hour” to have been both breathtakingly exciting and a time when all the old certainties on which Britain depended – of sex, class, political allegiance – were gone, and the new order yet to be understood.

Christobel Kent’s latest novel is What We Did (Sphere).

• Our Friends in Berlin is published by Jonathan Cape. To order a copy for £10.99 (RRP £14.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Christobel Kent

The GuardianTramp

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