The Unfortunate Englishman: Another historical hit from John Lawton
John Lawton's Unfortunate Englishman takes thief-turned-spy Joe Wilderness to Berlin at the height of the Cold War, where he is to mediate an exchange of prisoners between Great Britain and the U.S.S.R. The title character is a schlemiel nabbed for his ineptitude as a spy for the British, and the action consists of efforts to swap him for his opposite number and of flashes back and forward between the early and the mid-1960s.
Along the way, we see the Berlin Wall rise before our eyes and Wilderness encounter Nikita Khrushchev on the Soviet leader's (imaginary) solo tour of the city. Two supporting characters in the novel are shot by the Soviets for their activities, but the executions happen off-stage and they make their presence felt through the schlemiel's brief but intense reaction to them. The reticence of the portrayal makes the executions all the more chilling.
This character-based storytelling works in a kind of alchemy with Lawton's closely observed period detail to reinforce the status Lawton built in his Frederick Troy books as quite possibly the best historical novelist we have. Fans of those novels will be happy to know that Troy and his brother Rod make brief appearances in The Unfortunate Englishman.
© Peter Rozovsky 2016