John Lawton, best known for his Inspector Troy series (A Lily of the Field, etc.), introduces a new protagonist, Joe Wilderness, in Then We Take Berlin.
What can you tell us about Joe?
Joe is a street kid from the East End of London, and he’s very different from the aristocratic Inspector Troy. When I started the novel, I thought he’d sprung entirely from my imagination. Gradually, I realized that he was a lot like Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer, but he’s seriously more dishonest.
When Joe joins the RAF after WWII, his superiors notice his innate intelligence and send him to Cambridge. Did this sort of thing happen often?
When I went to college in the mid-1960s, two of my tutors had been plucked out of complete obscurity after being drafted in the 1950s. The RAF will pick kids with high IQ scores and give them a chance to go to Cambridge and study Russian and German. But Britain then, and to this day, is class-ridden; Joe never makes officer.
While most of your novel is set during WWII and the early postwar years, it opens in 1963, on the eve of President Kennedy’s historic visit to divided Berlin. Does 1963 resonate with you in any significant way?
My own memories of 1963 are particularly strong; it was a very important year, and not just in Berlin. The postwar depression in Britain really didn’t end until 1963, and we had been having a party for a whole year before the Beatles became an international sensation.
Do you mind that this book, like most of your work, is labeled a thriller?
I’ve lived in the States, and American publishers are right to tag my books as “thrillers.” I don’t like mysteries, and I don’t like whodunits. If someone asked me to categorize my novels, I’d say they are historical romances all wrapped up in a coat of noir.
Will Joe be back?
I can think of lots more for Joe Wilderness. If he resonates with readers, he’ll be back. And Inspector Troy is definitely coming back in a novel in which he’ll meet Guy Burgess, one of the “Cambridge Five” ring of spies working for the Soviets.
I have two Kindle Singles out now: Unholy Joy: 50 Years On—A Short History of the Profumo Affair and a story about a real spy, Anthony Cavendish, who was an MI6 officer who became a journalist and banker, called Bentinck’s Agent. I am also writing a memoir about Gore Vidal; I was appalled by his obituaries—no one seems to have scraped the surface of the man.