Leaving Berlin is a gripping historical thriller, set in Berlin four years after the end of World War II. Through an action-packed plot, readers gain a glimpse of what life was like there at the start of the Cold War, when the Stalinists replaced the Nazis. In many ways, the book is so realistic readers might forget it is a thriller.
The storyline is based on the adventures of Alex Meier, a German writer whose father was Jewish and who sees himself as a socialist. With his family’s help, Alex escaped to America before the Holocaust. Although he did not have his heart with the Communists, he still was swept up by the McCarthy era after refusing to name names to a Congressional committee. To avoid jail and continue being a celebrity novelist, he makes a desperate deal with the CIA. He must return to Berlin, pose as a disenchanted exile, and gather actionable intelligence by spying on a former lover.
Alex finds that espionage in Berlin is a fact of life. Throughout the story, Joseph Kanon shows the characters to be unlikely spies. Some scenes might require the reader to suspend belief as Alex suddenly develops into a master manipulator who handles violence with self-confidence. He is an amazingly fast learner in the art of spy craft, but without this the thriller would be lacking in suspense.
Kanon sets the tone in the very first pages with an explanation in an author’s note about the setting and the various organizations that played a key role in the story. Readers learn through the lead female character, Irene, about the double-dealing necessary to survive by working with the different secret organizations. Another character to survive is her brother-in-law, an unapologetic Nazi doctor who worked for the Third Reich’s euthanasia program.
Leaving Berlin is about betrayal, murder, and survival. It is filled with intrigue that reminds readers of a period and place where loyalties were conflicted and political maneuvering was prevalent. This is a compelling read with a complex, riveting, and intricate plot.
Read Elise Cooper’s interview with Joseph Kanon here.