Thursday, July 12, 2012

Flight From Berlin, by David John

Harper, 2012
384 pp.
[ARC -- my grateful thanks to the publisher for sending me this copy, and to Trish at TLC Book Tours for offering it!]

Flight From Berlin is a work of historical fiction, set in 1936 and 1937 in both Nazi Germany and London.  It's a good light-espionage/adventure and action thriller/escape read, populated with historical figures as well as fictional ones inspired by real people of the time (as noted in the end section) and structured in three parts.  The author states that the book came about as a result of a "fascination with history's footnotes," which is an attraction  I just happen to share.

Eleanor Emerson, daughter of a senator and wife of a bandleader,  has just been accepted as part of the US Olympics swimming team. She is on her way to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics, and is expected to follow the team rules while on board the ocean liner taking her across the Atlantic with the rest of the Olympians.  Sadly, her penchant for rule breaking and partying with celebrities gets her kicked off the team even before she reaches Germany, but friends in the press offer her a job as a reporter at the Olympic games.  In the meantime, Richard Denham, a British journalist, finds himself on board the Hindenburg, guest of an old family friend, as it overflies the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony.  Berlin has been completely transformed for the Games -- the "state sadism" has been  "hidden from view," there are no signs indicating "Jews Not Wanted," and the order of the day is "jollity and cheerfulness."  Denham, who lives and works in Berlin, has been tipped off to an incredible story: Jewish fencer Hannah Liebermann, who had already relocated to the United States, has been called back to compete for the Nazis in the Olympics -- as a guarantee that she'll participate, her relatives have been threatened.  She is also under orders not to win a gold medal.  On the trail of this story, which he wants to break to reveal the  real evil under the Olympics window dressing, he meets up with Eleanor, who is now a guest of the family of American Ambassador William Dodd.  The two become caught up in a very strange situation: it seems that both  British Intelligence and the Nazis are on the hunt for a secret, very explosive dossier, and for some reason, the Nazis seem to think that Denham has it, and will do anything it takes to get their hands on it.  The story tracks back to London, where Eleanor and Richard face a moral dilemma that returns them to Germany before finishing up with an explosive ending.

 Although there is no lack of action in this book,  and although  I was hooked early on,  I was really drawn to what was going on historically around the hunt for the dossier and the ultimate revelations toward the end of the novel.   There is a lot taking place behind the scenes that elevates this book from just another novel of Nazi vs. everyone else.  The author alludes to attitudes about the looming  trend toward appeasement,  the growing belief in the importance of intelligence vs. diplomacy, the reign of terror of the Brownshirts on German city streets, and of course, the fate of the Jews.   There's also a great deal here on the politically-charged 1936 Olympics -- the appeals for boycotts, etc., along with a passing mention of the irony of Jessie Owens' success up against the situation for African-Americans in America's Jim Crow South.  As Eleanor notes,
"The press boys told me that all gold medalists are interviewed on live radio after their competition. Imagine that. A black man's voice is speaking to Germany right now. They wouldn't put him on the radio back home unless he was singing Dixie."
Another really good thing he does here is to reveal that it wasn't only the Nazis who were the bad guys -- there were others lurking in the wings who offered their services without actually wearing  the party insignia.  Aside from the history, David John is really quite good at descriptions and setting; it's also very obvious that he's done a lot of research for this book. I was so taken with his writing on the Olympics that I bought a copy of Guy Walters' Berlin Games after seeing the reference in the Author's Notes.   The romance is light (which made me happy) and the characters are drawn well.   What I wasn't so thrilled with was the last part of the novel -- while it was exciting, it was somewhat predictable and more in tune with a movie version of this book rather than a realistic wind down to the final scene.  But having said that, the book is earning some 4 and 5-star reviews and is getting really good press, so I'd say it's one you have to experience it on your own.

On the whole -- Flight From Berlin is a good read; it may not be the most chilling of all the novels set in that era, but it is one that will definitely keep you turning pages while you soak up some of the well-developed historical background.   One final thought:  it's definitely a hell of a ride and an awesome first novel. I hope it does well.

 *** Flight From Berlin is currently making the rounds with readers at TLC Book Tours -- if you'd like to follow its travels, the schedule is posted here


  1. That "well-developed historical background" you mention is what I look for in books in this genre. Sounds like I'd love this one!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

    1. That's exactly what I look for, too! He did a really good job.


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