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Reviews of The Berlin Exchange by Joseph Kanon

The Berlin Exchange

A Novel

by Joseph Kanon

The Berlin Exchange by Joseph Kanon X
The Berlin Exchange by Joseph Kanon
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Feb 2022, 320 pages

    Mar 14, 2023, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Amanda Ellison
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About this Book

Book Summary

From "master of the genre" (the Washington Post) Joseph Kanon, an espionage thriller set at the height of the Cold War, when a captured American who has spied for the KGB is swapped by the British and returns to East Berlin needing to know who arranged his release and what they want from him.

Berlin. 1963. The height of the Cold War. An early morning spy swap, not at the familiar setting for such exchanges, or at Checkpoint Charlie, where international visitors cross into the East, but at a more discreet border crossing, usually reserved for East German VIPs. The Communists are trading two American students caught helping people to escape over the wall and an aging MI6 operative. On the other side of the trade: Martin Keller, a physicist who once made headlines, but who then disappeared into the English prison system. Keller's most critical possession: his American passport. Keller's most ardent desire: to see his ex-wife Sabine and their young son.

The exchange is made with the formality characteristic of these swaps. But Martin has other questions: who asked for him? Who negotiated the deal? The KGB? He has worked for the service long enough to know that nothing happens by chance. They want him for something. Not physics—his expertise is out of date. Something else, which he cannot learn until he arrives in East Berlin, when suddenly the game is afoot.

Filled with intriguing characters, atmospheric detail, and plenty of action Kanon's latest espionage thriller is one you won't soon forget.

Berlin, 1963

The exchange, it was decided, would take place at the Invalidenstrasse checkpoint. The press kept an eye on Glienicke Bridge now, hoping for another Powers-Abel swap, and the international crossing at Checkpoint Charlie would be crowded, cars streaming out of the American sector on day visas. Invalidenstrasse had the virtue of being discreet, out of the way, designated for the few West Germans heading east. And it was in the British sector. This was officially a British exchange, Martin for an MI6 operative the East Germans had held for years and two English students caught helping friends over the wall. Small fry. For someone who'd made headlines. Well, years ago. How many of the young guards up ahead would even know who he was? All they'd see would be the prisoner skin, the unmistakable pallor of someone who'd been inside. There was a different light in prison, even in the exercise yard, the sun itself filtered, behind bars.

"We get out here," McGregor said, ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In chapter 3, Martin meets up with his old handler in Russian intelligence, Andrei, who asks him to begin spying for them again; we learn Martin passed atomic secrets from the United States to Russia. How did this affect your view of Martin? How has his position changed since going to prison?
  2. The eyes of the Stasi are always watching. Discuss scenes where you noticed characters being careful about what they said, even when the Stasi weren't mentioned. What did they seem most nervous about discussing and what did that say about the values of East Germany?
  3. In chapter 3, Martin is shocked to learn that political prisoners are ransomed for money to fuel the Eastern economy. When he asks Kurt if that's legal, Kurt responds, "Legal is what ...
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BookBrowse Review


Kanon's sparse, utilitarian prose perfectly echoes the austerity of the novel's setting and mimics the cadence of the GDR's propaganda of denial: "There is no crime in the Republic." Through Martin's eyes (the narrative is in close third person) the reader is confronted with the paranoia of East Berlin, the brainwashing of its citizens and its morass of corruption. The writing style is complemented by the high volume of dialogue, through which the guardedness of the characters is revealed. Somehow, despite the frigorific prose, Kanon conveys a warmth in Martin's character and has the reader rooting for him...continued

Full Review Members Only (635 words).

(Reviewed by Amanda Ellison).

Media Reviews

Washington Post
In Joseph Kanon's skillful telling, Keller's elaborate scheme for escaping with his family to the West is heart-poundingly suspenseful.

Booklist (starred review)
[A] riveting tale of a spy forced to go back into the cold as a way of reclaiming his life...Genuine suspense, including an exciting variation on the border-crossing theme, combine beautifully with moving psychological drama.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A novel that gives paranoia a new name, Kanon's latest in a brilliant collection—including Leaving Berlin (2014) and Istanbul Passage (2012)—may be his most tightly rendered. The suspense builds quietly, almost stealthily, before tightening its grip. Another supersophisticated spy thriller from a ranking master.

Library Journal
Kanon baits the hook with an early murder and adds seduction and betrayal to bring about the grim conclusion. Fans of Alan Furst and John le Carré will include Kanon as the third member of a Cold War troika.

Publishers Weekly
[A] tense spy thriller...Kanon balances a convincing portrayal of spycraft with fleshed-out characters, while vividly depicting the impact of secret lives on the loved ones of those engaged in espionage. Fans of Len Deighton's Bernard Samson series will be pleased.

Reader Reviews


Another great historical thriller from Joseph Kanon
Every time I finish reading a Joseph Kanon book, I'm afraid he might retire and not write another. I feel that way now after reading his THE BERLIN EXCHANGE. Please, do it again, Joe! From 1962 to 1989, West Germany traded (exchanged) goods or ...   Read More
Frances Boyle

The Berlin Exchange
An incredibly boring and repetitive account of the Cold of the few books I ever abandoned, on page 178 to be precise!! The author must have considered his readers as amnesiacs considering his repetitious descriptions of characters, dialogue...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Story of Tunnel 29

The Berlin Wall, 1962 Wherever borders and barriers exist, resistance and the desire to escape will also be found. In The Berlin Exchange, Joseph Kanon's Cold War espionage thriller, the Berlin Wall looms as a formidable barricade. The book is set in 1963; only months earlier, the miraculous story of Tunnel 29 — so called because of the number of people it enabled to escape — played out in real life.

For those hoping to escape the brutality of East Germany (the German Democratic Republic/GDR) for the relative freedoms of the West, the wall was an obstruction few managed to conquer. For the duration of the Berlin Wall's presence from 1961 to 1989, over 100,000 people attempted to escape the GDR but only around 5,000 crossed the border ...

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