Joseph Kanon is a gripping historical thriller. The book’s
plot takes place in Berlin four years after the end of World
War II. What makes this novel special is that through an action-packed
plot readers gain a glimpse of what it was like at the start
of the Cold War, where the Stalinists replaced the Nazis.
In many ways it is so realistic people will forget it is a
The storyline is based on the adventures of Alex Meier, a
German whose father was Jewish and who sees himself as a socialist.
With the help of his family he 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
wanting to 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.
Kanon commented to blackfive.net, “Alex does not seem
to have his heart in communism. He saw two sides with the
Nazis representing the right and the communists representing
the left. At one point in the novel Alex refers to having
attended a communist meeting in California. He basically went
with someone who invited him, but he never becomes a party
member or commits to it. I would describe him as a Socialist,
partly because he never abandoned his Judaism. When he got
caught up in the cross hairs of the McCarthy sweep he got
into trouble because of his principled position of not naming
anyone else. This ruined his life.”
Throughout the story Kanon shows the characters to be unlikely
spies. There are some scenes that might suspend belief as
Alex suddenly develops into a master manipulator and is able
to handle 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 for the readers in the very first pages
as he explains in an author’s note about the setting
and the various organizations that played a key role in the
story. Readers learn through the main female character, Irene,
about the double-dealing that is done 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.
The author noted, “We must remember that the population
in Berlin was dependent on the rations for their survival.
There are no jobs or food except what is given out by the
occupying forces. How someone answered a questionnaire is
one of the ways to determine the amount of rations they received.
Irene lied partly for self-preservation, partly because she
was devious, and a part for survival. She is damaged by the
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 must read for its complex, riveting,
and intricate plot.