The Berlin Exchange by Joseph Kanon

Before he was Ed McBain, before he was even Evan Hunter, Salvatore Lombino worked as a literary agent. His clients included PG Wodehouse. Years later — you’ll have to do the raspy Bronx accent yourself — he gave his pithy but admiring verdict on “Plum”: “He was a pro.”

Joseph Kanon is a pro too. He had a prominent career in publishing in America before writing his first thriller in 1997. The setting of his debut, Los Alamos, was the group of wartime scientists around Robert Oppenheimer who were helping to build the atom bomb. In his subsequent novels, such as The Good German, which was turned into a film with George Clooney, and Istanbul Passage, Kanon has continued to explore similar terrain.

His milieu is the postwar years, when new enemies and former ideologies cause crises for his cast of spies and defectors. It may be a formula, but from the opening paragraph of The Berlin Exchange, with its matter-of-fact immediacy, you feel you’re in safe hands.

Back to Berlin

Martin Keller is an American physicist who passed nuclear secrets to the Russians. He has spent ten years in prison in Britain, but in 1963 he is unexpectedly swapped through the recently erected Berlin Wall for three prisoners bound for the West. Why, he wonders, does the East still want him? And why now?

Of course, Keller isn’t free. He has simply exchanged one prison for another, the Communist German Democratic Republic, where his old Russian handler still has a use for him. Yet in the intervening decade, Keller’s doubts about the morality of what he did have sprouted. He had thought he was creating a balance of power that would prevent war, but the Soviets want to make ever more powerful bombs. Where now should his loyalties lie?

He’s also held fast by other bonds. In East Berlin lives his ex-wife, Sabine, whom he still loves, and the son he has never met, Peter, the star of a popular television show extolling the virtues of life in the GDR. However, Sabine has cancer and is planning the future. Meanwhile, Kurt, to whom she is now married, is the go-between who arranged Keller’s swap, a slippery fixer with ties to the Stasi secret police and the ruling regime.

Everyone has an agenda and no one has any control over what they must do. That’s the reality of life in such a state. “I don’t have a choice,” Keller says to his handler. “You made it,” comes the reply. “Years ago.”

Joseph Kanon’s milieu is the postwar years, when new enemies and former ideologies cause crises for his cast of spies and defectors.

The obvious comparison to draw is with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which probably not by coincidence is set in Berlin in the same year. The moral dilemmas that anchor The Berlin Exchange, however, place it less in John le Carré’s territory than in Graham Greeneland.

At 60 years’ remove, even if a new Tepid War beckons, the novel cannot convey the sense those authors did of there being something vital at stake for a world beyond the characters. Nonetheless, it isn’t merely a homage to them. As an entertainment, it’s superbly accomplished, from the Swiss watch plot and crisp dialogue to an atmosphere so well realized it feels as if it is written in black-and-white film.

Keller proves resourceful and begins to devise ways of escape. Bold disguises, car chases and handbrake-turn twists wind inexorably to a climax at the border that shows that Kanon can do not just the talk, but also the tensest of spotlit walks. Expect this to exchange the page for the screen in due course, but before then let yourself enjoy a modern master at work.

James Owen is the author of Great Events: 200 Years of History as It Happened