David John's imaginative genius shows on every page of his debut thriller as he wraps an intense fiction around the real events and people of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. As the male protagonist Richard Denham and his new friend/love interest Eleanor Emerson meet and become accidental spies, John steadily ratchets up the tension to such a pitch that I could not put the book down. I couldn't believe where it was all heading.
The Berlin scene is set not so much by lengthy nuts-and-bolts descriptive paragraphs but by slyly exposing the overarching atmosphere of Hitler's menacing omnipresence in the form of his jackbooted minions. It's as if all of the Berlin action takes place in a dense fog where nothing is clearly visible but sinister presences are viscerally felt. The threat hanging over Denham becomes increasingly frightening as his pursuers close in, certain that he possesses information the Führer wants destroyed at any cost.
John's characterization of Denham is solid. I never doubted or wondered what motivates him. He is the battle-scarred WWI veteran-cum-crusty investigative journalist. The character of Eleanor however, much as it is easy to see her portrayed in a movie by someone like Amanda Seyfried or Keira Knightley, is slower to develop. Other characters, including United States Ambassador to Berlin William Dodd and his rebellious daughter Martha, both drawn from real life, felt genuine. Especially since I had recently read Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, about Dodd's tenure in Germany.
If Berlin feels like a scary fog, John's coverage of scenes from the Olympic competitions puts the reader smack inside the roar and excitement of the crowds. Combining the pressure of athletic performances with the stress of Hitler's efforts to stage a phony humanitarian show for the watching world and the unwinding fictional espionage plot highlights John's authorial mastery. It rivals the very best of spy novels. I would like to see more of Richard Denham, maybe in another adventure since this one is definitely a first rate nail-biter.
This review was originally published in July 2012, and has been updated for the June 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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