The Unfortunate Englishman

Written by John Lawton
Review by Ellen Keith

I confess that I do enjoy ambiguous titles. Does “the unfortunate Englishman” refer to MI6 agent, Joe Holderness, dragged back into the government against his will? Or is it Bernard Alleyn, aka KGB agent Leonid Liubimov, who subsumed himself so totally into his British persona that he has no desire to be part of a prisoner exchange with the other unfortunate Englishman, Geoffrey Masefield? Masefield, an engineer, had eagerly volunteered himself to MI6 to use his profession and fluent Russian to spy for his country. These men are all unfortunate in that they are acting at the height of the Cold War. Lawton puts his characters in Berlin as the Wall is erected in 1961, and in Moscow when it was assumed that every foreigner had a KGB agent tailing him.

This is the second in Lawton’s Joe Wilderness novels. Without reading the first, I had no clue why Wilderness was really Holderness, and why Nell Burkhardt is so important to the married Holderness. But that didn’t interfere with my utter absorption in this story. Lawton expertly captures the MI6 bureaucrat, the desk man, and the field man, as well as the deep cover spy and the transparent amateur. Women get shorter shrift, though. We don’t know why Joe and his wife stay married and what the elusive Nell’s role is. Still, for anyone for whom the Berlin Wall is becoming a faint memory, this is a chilling reminder of that divided city. Lawton allows some poetic license, putting Khrushchev in Berlin to witness a 77-year-old Frieda Schulze escape from a border building into West Berlin. Lawton, you’ve got me – I now need to read Then We Take Berlin.