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Originally published Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 5:11 AM

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“And Then We Take Berlin”: deadly games in a divided city

John Lawton’s terrific “And Then We Take Berlin” tells the story of a British soldier-cat burglar who becomes involved in post-war Berlin’s black market, then is asked to apply his skills in the service of a serious Cold War plot.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“Then We Take Berlin”

by John Lawton

Atlantic, 400 pp., $26

It’s gruesome subject matter, but the ruins of postwar Europe are a rich source of inspiration for thriller writers. One of the best is John Lawton, and his terrific new book focuses on perhaps the continent’s most traumatized city: Berlin.

Lawton’s no stranger to the era. He’s best known for his novels about Frederick Troy, a police detective in the war years.

The new book opens slowly, with a flash-forward in 1960s-era Manhattan. But the meat comes soon enough. British soldier Joe Wilderness (a nickname) is an irreverent, cheerful cat burglar who catches the eye of military intelligence, trained as an operative, and stationed in postwar Berlin – a ruined city divided into Allied-controlled sectors and rich in intrigue and illicit activity.

Wilderness discovers his new home’s thriving black market and lucratively helps himself. He also meets a German woman — Nell Breakheart (another nickname) — and the sparks fly. The lovers lose track of each other, however, until Joe returns to Berlin some 15 years later to take part in a bold scam. He also finds Nell, by now an aide to West Berlin’s mayor, Willy Brandt.

Brandt is preparing for John F. Kennedy’s arrival for his famous speech denouncing the Berlin Wall. And the scam? Well, it’s complicated – suffice to say it’s a Cold War-style tangle of crosses and double-crosses.

Lawton’s gift for atmosphere, memorable characters and intelligent plotting has been compared to John le Carré, but his dry humor also invokes the late Ross Thomas. Thomas wrote smart espionage that was serious but never, so to speak, without a twinkle in its eye. Never mind the comparisons – Lawton can stand up on his own, and “Then We Take Berlin” is a gem.

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