Our Friends in Berlin by Anthony Quinn tells a story of London in World War Two seldom told. It is a spy novel but not a thriller. It focuses on the individuals concerned and has a deceptive pace which means the threats, when they come, are more startling. Jack Hoste is not who he seems to be. He is not a tax inspector; he is not looking for a wife. He is a special agent who tracks down Nazi spies. And at night he is an ARP warden.
The juxtaposition of Hoste’s life of secrets is set nicely against that of Amy Strallen who works at the Quartermaine Marriage Bureau. Ordinary life does go on in London during the Luftwaffe bombing and Amy must match clients together, a matter of instinct rather than calculation. In order to be matched with the right person, clients are asked to tell the truth about what they are seeking, truths which may have been disguised or hidden until now. Client requests include ‘a lady with capital preferred’ and ‘not American’. Then one day she meets a new client who seems oddly reluctant to explain what he is looking for. The client is Jack Hoste and he doesn’t want a wife, he is searching for Marita Pardoe, a suspected Nazi sympathiser and friend of Amy in the Thirties. What unfolds is a story of spying, gentle romance, betrayal, fanaticism and the life of living in a bombed city.
Jack and Amy seem to run on parallel tracks, veering towards and then away from each other, both romantically unsure, both allow the real world to get in the way. And get in the way it does, in the shape of Marita. Quinn is excellent at building characters, he makes you care for them and that’s what keeps you reading. In a time of war, decisions are often made recklessly but Jack and Amy draw back from doing this. Both are people of honour, making the secrets they must keep and the lies they must tell all the more pertinent. The nature of truth is a theme wriggling its way through every page.
Anthony Quinn is a favourite author of mine, his novels are each quite different and I will read everything he writes. I read this one quickly. Read my reviews of Curtain Call and Freya, also by Anthony Quinn.
‘Our Friends in Berlin’ by Anthony Quinn [UK: Jonathan Cape]
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