Anthony Quinn entertains and informs in equal measure with Our Friends in Berlin, a sophisticated and intelligent thriller set in London during the early 1940s.
London, 1941. Amy Strallen, a single woman in her late twenties, is running a marriage bureau with her friend Johanna Quartermaine. The bureau has been running for about two years and to the surprise of both women has been a roaring success. They had presumed that no one would want to get married during the war, but the opposite is the case. Life is short and precarious; Londoners living under bombardment are eager to find someone before fate intervenes.
Into Amy’s office one day walks Jack Hoste. He claims to be looking for a wife, but he’s a little odd. A little dull, too. Mysteriously Hoste starts bumping into Amy when she’s out of the office and the two strike up a friendship of sorts. It turns out Hoste works for the tax office and is trying to contact a certain Marita Pardoe, who is a friend of Amy’s. The tax office, apparently, owes Marita Pardoe’s husband a large sum of money. But the more Amy gets to know Jack Hoste, the more she finds out that her new friend is not all he seems. Is he a spy? And if so, which side is he working for, the British of the Nazis?
Our Friends in Berlin is a perfectly plotted espionage novel set in London during the bombing raids of the early forties. The story runs at a neat clip, with nicely paced twists and turns along the way without at all feeling contrived.
The novel’s great achievement is its authentic 1940s flavour. It captures the mood and atmosphere of London during the blackouts – the smouldering ruins, the bombing casualties, the privations and the great fortitude of the people. Quinn’s language is uncanny in its fidelity to the period: it has the feel of Orwell’s early fiction, such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, or a Dorothy Sayers thriller. The clever plot is nicely balanced against a cast of fully fleshed, three dimensional characters. Quinn writes women particularly well. The central figure of the novel, Amy Strallen, is drawn with great sympathy. The reader really walks in her shoes for the whole story, feeling her pains and disappointments, her rare moments of happiness and reprieve from war’s misery.
An espionage thriller set during the Second World War doesn’t seem to promise much beyond cheap thrills and cliches. Our Friends in Berlin is a very pleasant surprise, rich in psychological depth and aesthetic pleasures.
I thoroughly enjoyed this entertaining yet informative novel about London during the war years.
Our Friends in Berlin, by Anthony Quinn. Published by Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 9781787330986 RRP: $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books