Friday 19 January 2024

Review by Mike Gregory of "Our Friends in Berlin" and "London, Burning" by Anthony Quinn

Our Friends in Berlin (2018) is an intriguing, pacy, at times beautifully written espionage novel set amongst spies, fifth columnists, fellow travellers and innocent (or not-so-innocent) bystanders in London during World War 2. It covers, therefore, similar territory in many ways to Agatha Christie’s N or M? (1941) and Kate Atkinson's Transcription which, weirdly, came out the same year as Our Friends in Berlin. It's not quite as accomplished, clever or surprising as Atkinson's beguiling, bewitching spy saga, nor is it as delightfully daft as the Christie, but it’s very good.    

The descriptions of war-torn London borrow some of the weariness of early T. S. Eliot but as if crumpled into a plot by Eric Ambler. The frequent switches in third-person point of view keep things fresh. You find yourself, strangely, quite liking the undercover Gestapo agent, Hoste.  Plot reveals, when they come, are not always as surprising as Quinn perhaps intended, but they satisfy nonetheless. It's only in the last quarter where the writer sacrifices subtlety and wit to the dubious demands of action.  


London, Burning (2021) was even better, I thought. Set in the late 1970s, Quinn’s urban thriller trails the lives of a journalist, a theatre impresario, an academic and a young DC as they navigate a London crumbling under public service strikes, IRA bombing campaigns, the emergence of punk rock and police corruption. The young academic at one point is giving a tutorial on the role of coincidence in the fiction of Henry James; it's a clear signal of how Quinn wants the reader to treat the tragi-comic, often violent intersections of these disparate lives.  

As the story unfolds, we move from 1977 to the eve of Thatcher's 1979 election victory. Unlike other writers anchoring their stories to specific moments in socio-cultural history, Quinn never seems to put a foot wrong. (He certainly knows his Mott the Hoople, Clash, Kate Bush and disco). He even nails the precise smell of 1970s telephone boxes.  

About the reviewer
Mike Gregory is a 59 year-old who never quite recovered from a teenage addiction to the novels of Graham Greene. He spent a quarter of a century teaching English but has also been, at various times, a support worker, petrol station attendant, cinema projectionist, librarian, barkeep, civil servant and private tutor. Any job, basically, in which one might surreptitiously read.   

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