Where has author John Lawton been hiding all my life? This is, quite simply, the best spy story I’ve read for years. It’s been compared to Le Carre and Alan Furst – but those references aren’t entirely accurate. Hammer To Fall is far more fluid and a lot less pompous than Le Carre’s recent work. It has as much attention to detail as Furst’s melancholic war stories but is written with a lighter touch. Our protagonist isn’t a lovelorn Mittel-European aristocrat but instead is a crafty London wideboy, Jack The Lad skulking in the darkened doorways and shady sidestreets on the crummy side of the Cold War.
We meet Joe Wilderness in Berlin immediately after WW2 when he’s making a mildly corrupt crack by shuffling coffee and ciggies between zones. 20 years later, Joe the MI6 field operative has (just) survived a series of physical and political incidents which see him exiled to a seemingly pointless posting in rural Finland. In theory, he can’t do much harm as a part of a cultural mission showing outdated British films to the locals along the borderlands with the USSR. In practice, a wily spy will find a conspiracy almost anywhere – and Joe can’t believe it when an old acquaintance from the other side mysteriously appears…
If anything, Hammer To Fall feels more like Len Deighton’s terrific Game, Set and Match series in its scope, authentic tradecraft, nifty footwork, clever characterisation and almost perfect plotting. Every thread you encounter along the way – every incidental but deftly drawn member of the supporting cast – they all turn out to be essential to the big picture. Lawton transported me to Czechoslovakia in its time of turbulence, to an era when moral relativism was a common concept. Joe might be on the side of the angels, but they’re angels with dirty faces… and they have fingers poised over dangerous buttons.
Lawton might take the occasional liberty with actual events and their times and places but it all enhances the slick storytelling, and accentuates the wry humour in Joe’s complex web of competing relationships. There are some incidents which are catastrophically funny. In others, a quiet human truth emerges – like when Joe muses that spies often forget their cover stories and get carried away with the act of espionage… but he’s become so comfortable in his cover that he might almost have forgotten to be a spy.
Almost, but not quite.
I have a couple of minor grumbles; Lawton over-uses the word ‘crepuscular’, which I think deserves no more than one outing in any book, not half a dozen. Once is clever; more than that is showing off. And several of his phrases feel too modern for the period; did people really say ‘I’ll get me coat’ back in 1968? Or mention a McGuffin?
But these brief bumps in the road did not detract from a magnificent espionage adventure which was genuinely unpredictable, grounded in a gritty reality most people would prefer to forget. It was monstrously enjoyable. Rather wonderfully, this isn’t the first book to feature Joe Wilderness, so there’s more good stuff to look forward to.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Hammer To Fall by John Lawton is available at Amazon