“Our Friends In Berlin”, set in London in 1941, is a well-written atmospheric novel with a unique point of view that captures the period well and has a couple of original plot twists but which I found a little too bloodless to be satisfying.
The story focuses on three main characters: Jack Hoste, an Englishman running a network of “Fifth Columnists”, English Nazi sympathisers and ex-members of the British Union of Fascists, to gather intelligence for Berlin; Marita Pardoe, wife of an interned leader of the British Fascist Union, now in hiding but still plotting against the British state and Amy Strallen a young English woman, partner in an at-the-time-innovative marriage bureau and former friend of Marita Pardo.
At the start of the novel, I found myself quite disoriented (in a good way) by the idea of a spy novel set in London during the Blitz where the German spies are the heroes. I didn’t know where it was going but I enjoyed the way the ever-so-English almost “Mrs Minerva” atmosphere was made oxymoronic when applied to descriptions of “Little England” fifth columnists meeting discuss how to accelerate Hitler’s liberation of Europe.
There’s a strong plot here, some genuinely tense action scenes and an authentic (for an age I have no direct experience of) period feel. I rather liked the way in which Jack’s colleagues were brought to life and I loved the descriptions of the workings of the Marriage Bureau.
So why aren’t I gushing with enthusiasm?
Partly it’s because Jack Hoste shows so much sang-froid he eventually comes across as either emotionally crippled or so fatalistic that he’s just going through the motions of living. This may be authentic but I found it hard to engage with.
I also struggled with the way the novel told Amy Strallen’s story. The episodes describing her pre-war relationship with Marita were important to the plot and to character exposition but they felt dumped into the narrative, disrupting the flow rather than adding to the momentum. Focusing the final chapter on Amy felt like a last-ditch attempt for broader significance that didn’t quite make it.