Spy stories set against a backdrop of bitter division between East and West could hardly be more timely – and Jack Grimwood’s new Cold War thriller takes us back to the epicentre of post-war European espionage. Welcome to the partitioned city of Berlin in the 1980s, a near-perfect metaphor for people divided by politics.
Nightfall Berlin is the second of Grimwood’s espionage adventures, following the problematic pathway of military intelligence officer Major Tom Fox, a complicated protagonist if ever there was one. (If you’ve not read the first book, Moskva, then here’s our review of it, and here’s a competition to win a paperback copy). We’ve a full review of Nightfall Berlin coming later this week, but first we wanted to know more about the novel’s background.
So please welcome author Jack Grimwood, to tell us about his crime writing, key characters, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and following in the footsteps of Le Carré…
You’ve written literary fiction, alternate earth histories, fantasy novels, books about Venetian vampires and others about a half-Berber detective in a modern-day Ottoman empire. What led you to the Cold War spy story?
The Cold War spy story is such a classic format, and we’re in the middle of a new cold war running on rules no one’s yet worked out, while looking back to the old cold war, when things were supposedly clearer. If the 80s were a wilderness of mirrors, we’re now lost in a wilderness of computer screens and a fog of digital chaff. The very idea of Moscow Rules feels nostalgic… All my novels are crime novels and it’s only ever the physical location and the location in time that changes.
You’re following in big footsteps; not just Le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith, but authors like Len Deighton, Graham Greene and Robert Littell. Was it hard to find new stories to tell, given the breadth and depth of literature in this genre?
If we all stopped to think about the greatness of those who came before us then we’d never find the arrogance to write anything. I’d say loving Le Carré, Cruz Smith and Greene was a spur to staking a claim in the area.
It’s the same in all genres, you have a story and fit it to a format, and what you do with the story depends on your voice and the direction from which you approach the heart of the problem. Give six novelists five characters, four clues and a crime and you’ll still get six very different books. And the books would tell you as much about the novelists as the novelists have told you about the characters.
At least I’d hope so.
First in Moskva and now in Nightfall Berlin, British intelligence officer Major Tom Fox finds himself betrayed, blamed for dead bodies, believed to be a double agent and sought by all security services. Shades of Desmond Bagley’s Running Blind, maybe?
Nice spot. I read Running Blind at school and was hooked not by the plot, which was suitably world weary and worn, but by the Icelandic landscape and Alan Stewart’s predicament trapped between Mi6 and the KGB and not knowing who to trust and realising that meant he could trust no one. I grew up in a service family, with family friends in intelligence and diplomatic, where the cold war looked to the grownups as if it was there for eternity and political paranoia was as prevalent as plotting, alcohol and cigarette smoke. Later on, I had friends who lived and worked in Moscow and Berlin. It all goes in the mix.
Your version of Berlin in the late 1980s is wonderfully weary; you’ve absolutely captured the essence of an almost exhausted urban environment. Did you visit the city when it was divided, or talk to residents from that era? Or invoke some powerful imagination?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It’s easy, looking back, to make memories seem more significant by layering on meaning I wouldn’t have recognised if it ran me down with a steam roller at the time. Just as I used my memories of Moscow in the mid-80s for Moskva, I shifted memories of Berlin from the 70s ten years forward for Nightfall Berlin. The books follow on and the cities had common links; not least a heavy presence of the KGB, and having been badly battered in war. Even now, years after the wall fell, East Berlin and West Berlin are different, particularly if you head out to the edges or concentrate on the back streets. I love psychogeography. It’s pretentious as fuck but it’s great fun to play with.
Although it’d be hard to mistake Tom Fox for George Smiley (and Le Carré’s spymaster left all that running about business to young Peter Guillam), Fox and Smiley do seem to have quite a bit in common. They both married up, seem equally uncomfortable with their in-laws, and struggle to keep their domestic situations intact. Was that deliberate, or did it just happen?
Someone who knows Le Carre made a similar comment and I had to say that, to be honest, Tom Fox’s family (and the ambassador’s family from Moskva) were mostly modelled on my own and it really was a case of write what you know.
Tom keeps telling everyone who asks that he definitely absolutely categorically hasn’t gone over to the other side. But he seems to get an awful lot more assistance from the Soviets than from the British establishment. Is he maybe protesting too much? Where do his sympathies really lie?
By the end of Moskva, Tom had stacked up massive credit with the Kremlin for thwarting a plot that would have tumbled Gorbachev from power. It took the commissar, as eminence gris to the old guard, throwing his weight behind Gorbachev to keep perestroika on the road. East Berlin doesn’t want perestroika to happen and by the end of the 80s barely trusted Moscow. Tom’s fight is the commissar’s, while East Berlin’s is in part London’s. The West mistrusted Gorbachev and in the end betrayed him, leading to Yeltsin, the ransacking of the ex-Soviet Union, and London’s rise as a global laundromat for washing dirty money. Tom’s just the poor sap in the middle trying to do his best to honour his debts, do what’s right and stay alive.
There are a couple of masterful moments of OH MY GIDDY AUNT trauma and tension in Nightfall Berlin, not least that utterly teeth-grinding checkpoint scene. Which bits did you enjoy writing the most – spooking around East German side streets or the complicated personal relationship stuff?
Thanks! I enjoyed writing the Charlie stuff most. From the opening scene in the minefield to the final scene with Wax Angel in the country those scenes just flowed. The stuff with Major Tom Fox and Caro, his wife, as they try to mend their marriage was not technically different but was emotionally hard to write. The hardest scene, technically, was in the zoo at the end, when I was trying to keep the complexity of who was where and what was going on in my head while making it appear simple on the page.
Would you be tempted to write crime fiction set in an earlier time? WW2 is jolly popular, it seems. Or are there just too many ‘good German’ detectives running around Nazi-occupied Europe already?
I’m writing a thriller set in the German occupied Channel Islands at the moment! Although tragically it lacks a ‘Good German’ detective. Lindsay Davis’s Falco did the Roman detective so well that’s pretty much done. We’ve had medieval and Tudor detectives and more Victorian detectives than Sherlock Holmes could step over. I’ve always felt we’re missing a Napoleonic one. It’s such a brilliant period with Europe in turmoil and all the rules being rewritten; this being what makes the whole WW2 detective things so addictive. I see him as a British double agent in the court of napoleon, doing his best to serve both sides…
Speaking of such things, Wax Angel is a wonderful character who deserves a book of her own. Sorry, that’s not a question, is it? OK, how about: have you seen Red Sparrow, and if so what did you think of its representation of East-West espionage interactions?
No, I haven’t. Yes, she does definitely. For me Wax Angel is a mythical character, at the very least semi mythical. She’s the spirit of Moscow and inhabits a world between this and the next. I hope to feature her in novels for years to come.
Loved the special guest appearance by Nena. Is Tom Fox going to make it to 1990 – so a radio can play the Scorpions Wind Of Change in the background?
I follow the Moskva
Down to Gorky Park
Listening to the wind of change
An August summer night
Soldiers passing by
Listening to the wind of change…
Oh yes. Of course! In my head Tom has to be there to watch the wall come down. And there’s a hat tip to the theme of Harry’s Game and an early Sisters of Mercy track in the first Tom Fox book.
And finally… Bernie Gunther or Bernard Samson?
Bernie Gunther and not just because Phillip Kerr died recently. I read March Violets and was hooked in a way few things outside James Lee Burke, John Connolly, Donna Leon and Ian Rankin have hooked me.
Massive thanks to Jack (aka Jon Courtenay aka Jonathan) Grimwood for his time, and thought-provoking comments
Interview by Rowena Hoseason
Nightfall Berlin is out now in paperback, ebook and hardback editions