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Hammer to Fall

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I gather that John Lawton is a relatively famous for his series of books in this genre.I’m really sorry that I have missed his previous writings. This is the first book of his that I have read and that is regrettable as this guy writes great books. This is a lively, humorous and engaging book about spy life during the cold war in out of the norm places. A solid 4.5 STARS.  I’m definitely reading the next book he writes. 
The adventures of Joe Wilderness across Cold War Europe.From Berlin, surviving on airlift support, to Finland, England, and, ultimately, Prague in the spring of 1968, MI6 spy Joe Holderness, aka Wilderness, gets into and out of a number of compelling spots of trouble in this installment of his story (The Unfortunate Englishman, 2016, etc.).
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‘Odd thing, memory.’

London, 1960s.  Remember the Cold War? MI6 spy Joe Wilderness has had some interesting experiences, and in this novel (the third in the series) will travel full circle. The story opens in 1948 in East Berlin, where Joe Wilderness (real name Joe Holderness) is combining spy-craft with a little black-market activity. It’s easy money, until things go wrong.

By way of punishment, Wilderness is then posted to remote northern Finland under the guise of a cultural exchange program aimed at promoting Britain abroad.  There’s not much to spy on there, or so it seems, until Wilderness finds another way to make money. There’s a vodka shortage in the USSR, and Wilderness is able to use this to his advantage with the help of a Russian, Kostya, he had dealt with previously in Berlin.  Why is Kostya in Finland?  A connection is made, and then Wilderness is withdrawn to London.

‘Nothing undermined Intelligence like complacency.’

But his adventures continue, making it very difficult to put this novel down. There’s plenty of tension and some wry humour, there are contacts from the past and some very interesting new characters I hope to see more of.  And then, there’s a twist at the end.  What will happen next? 

While this is the third Joe Wilderness novel, it is possible to read it as a standalone.  If you enjoy spy novels with a touch of humour, like political intrigue (and especially if you remember aspects of the Cold War), you may enjoy this novel as much as I did.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and  Grove Atlantic for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.  

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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Published by Atlantic Monthly Press on March 10, 2020

Hammer to Fall is the third Joe Wilderness novel, but I have not been so fortunate as to read the first two. John Lawton has an unusual take on the spy novel genre. Wilderness (whose birth name is Holderness) is a bit of a rogue, a patriot when necessary and a hustler when opportunity presents itself. Spying suits his personality because he’s a born deceiver, but so does filling his safe with ill-gotten currency. The story is amusing for that reason, but it is far from a comedy. Hammer to Fall creates suspense in the best tradition of spy novels, including a couple of classic prisoner exchanges on bridges.

The novel has many moving parts and covers a significant span of time. Central characters weave in and out of each other’s lives as the story unfolds.

Joe begins the novel as a Schieber (black marketeer). In 1948, Joe is a Russian-speaking British corporal who does business with Eddie Clark and an American named Frank Spoleto, selling stolen coffee to a Russian named Kostya Zolotukhin. Kostya’s mother is a general in the NKVD known as the Red Widow. She rips off Joe and the Schiebers in a deal for peanut butter, leaving Kostya to face their wrath.

Spoleto goes on to be a CIA agent. Joe’s lover at the time is woman named Nell Burkhardt who was “raised by thieves and whores back in London’s East End” yet has a moral compass that Joe lacks.

Fast forward to 1966 and Joe is a field agent for MI6 who has seemingly misplaced a Soviet agent named Bernard Alleyn during a prisoner exchange. What actually happened to Alleyn plays a key role in the novel’s resolution. As punishment for apparently bungling his mission, Joe is sent to Finland, where nothing is happening. Joe passes the time by reengaging with Kostya in a black-market vodka operation until he stumbles upon information that might suggest an actual Soviet plot against the West. Along the way Joe gives a career assist to a bright woman named Janis Bell.

Joe next travels to Prague after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, posing as a tractor salesman. The Prague station chief, whose wife slugged a Russian spy, is spirited away and replaced by an old friend of Joe. Another old friend, Freddie Troy, who also has a feisty wife, goes to Prague as the UK ambassador. All of this leads to the story’s culmination, which circles to the beginning and brings back characters from Joe’s past in another tense scene on a bridge between East and West.

Lawton’s characters have a realistic (not to say cynical) view of the world that they sometimes express with a bit of snark. For example, when Troy is told that his mission in Prague is to show support for democratic rebels while quietly turning most of them over to the Russians because “we can’t put up tents on the embassy lawn” to house them all, Troy asks why it is important to demonstrate support publicly if “in private you’re getting ready to dump them.” Of course, Troy’s wife promptly puts up tents in the embassy lawn.

The plot is also realistic in that it doesn’t involve a series of chase scenes and shootouts. Joe is bored much of the time because spying involves a good bit of waiting and watching. There’s little chance for the reader to be bored, however, because Joe fills his time in interesting ways. And moments of fast action arise with sufficient frequency to give the book a good pace.

Complex characters, a fascinating and wide-ranging plot, and a terrific sense of atmosphere make Hammer to Fall a pleasure to read. The book is self-contained, but the ending sets up the next installment with a mini-cliffhanger.

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John Lawton is one of my favorite authors, who is remarkably consistent in his series, both with Inspector Troy and Joe Wilderness.  I am constantly amazed at how much story Mr. Lawton is able to fit into his novels – and I mean this as a compliment - when you realize how much has taken place, you’re apt to feel that the book should have been much longer!

We start out with a flashback to Berlin, reintroducing some characters as well as a few new ones who’ll make an appearance later in the story.  But then off to London in the sixties, and MI6 spy Joe Wilderness is in trouble once again, getting himself shipped off to Finland, his cover being part of a cultural exchange program.  Of course, Joe gets bored, and reverts back to his smuggling days, smuggling vodka into the USSR (yes, into Russia – that’s not a misprint!), sniffing around cobalt mining (used in atomic bomb making), yanking him back to London for a bit. And then it’s off to Ireland before heading to Prague, where Inspector Troy, Nell, and others all swirl together for an ending against the backdrop of the Prague Spring.

If you’re a fan of Philip Kerr, or Alan Furst, then you should also be reading Mr. Lawton.  Sometimes I get a bit distracted in the middle of these, but then something happens that makes me stay up late and rush to the ending.  Well done.

I requested and received a free advanced electronic copy from Grove Atlantic / Atlantic Monthly Press via NetGalley. Thank you!
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sly-humor, British, espionage, historical-research, historical-fiction, historical-places-events, cold-war, political-intrigue, black-market, smuggling

I wouldn't say laugh out loud, but definitely choking on coffee/tea and chortling. Joe Wilderness is a black marketeer/spy/really sneaky devil who actually cares more about his friends than the jobs he is assigned. His facility with languages makes it easy for him to turn the assignments sideways and come out on top even as he gets into more hot water with his superiors. From country to country he keeps getting shuffled around and reverts to smuggling whenever he gets bored. The historicals are close and show decent research. Most importantly, I loved it!
I requested and received a free ebook copy from Grove Atlantic / Atlantic Monthly Press via NetGalley. Thank you!
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What happens to spies after peace treaties are signed? According to Hammer to Fall, they simply keep on keeping on. Books about spy-craft (fiction and non-fiction) reveal spies have more affinity with their counterparts across the ideological divide than with their masters in the sterile corridors of power. 

Joe “Wilderness” Holderness has a well-earned reputation for going rogue, particularly when he’s bored. We catch a glimpse of him in East Berlin, in the summer of 1948, “trading coffee, butter and anything else the Russians had on their shopping list.” Through the prism of Wilderness’s black market activities, clues are dropped about his nature and future. Wilderness is not your standard Kim Philby-like, Oxbridge spy; “raised by thieves and whores back in London’s East End, he had come to regard honesty as aberrant.” Lying is second nature to Wilderness, as it would be to any “good Schieber.” It’s hard to exactly translate Schieber into English but a few synonyms are pusher, dealer, racketeer, gangster. You get the drift. In Wilderness’s world, “You lied and you were lied to.”

His “Elsa” is Nell Burkhardt, a woman so honorable that although Wilderness can supply her with delicious black-market delicacies, she refuses to prepare anything beyond the fare of ordinary Berliners. Nell is the one-that-got-away—surprising Wilderness when she walks out on him. 

Even more of a surprise was that he would not set eyes on her again for fifteen years, that the 1950s would roll into the 1960s without a glimpse of her.

Years later, a married man and father of twins, a whiff of L’aimant by Coty, Nell’s signature scent, transports Wilderness to an unforgettable time.

Wilderness mucks up what should have been a pro forma transfer of spies on the Glienicke Bridge. He returns to London town to face the music. No one in Whitehall believes his explanation so his father-in-law/boss arranges a new assignment in Finland, reporting to Head of Station, Burton, J. The unspoken reason for Wilderness’s exile transfer is that MI6 doesn’t want him to answer any more questions from disapproving politicians. 

“What’s past is prologue” is an unspoken theme of Hammer to Fall. Fifteen years after Nell gave him his marching orders, Wilderness makes a quick detour to Berlin, on his way to Finland.

Memory was a flood he could not fold. So he accepted it. Every time he went back to Grünetümmlerstraße he knew he would be drenched by wave and wave of memories, mostly of Nell Burkhardt.

Nell is long gone but their friend Erno Schreiber, a talented document forger, tells Wilderness that Nell is quite a powerhouse now. Wilderness is taken aback to hear she’s destined for Bonn; she was always a Berliner to her core.

Helsinki is much as Wilderness remembers, a city grounded in the past, with cobblestones and trams: “He’d never found much to like or dislike about the place. Hardly a recommendation.” Given his new identity as Michael Young, Second Secretary/cultural attaché, Wilderness anticipates “doing nothing, saying nothing.” Of course he’s wrong. He goes to the chancery and asks a “woman in her late forties” if he can see the boss. After a long while, she ushers him into an empty room, saying “Mr. Burton will see you now.”

“Do sit down, Flight Sergeant Holderness. You’re only Michael Young when I’m through with you.”


Burton . . . Burton . . . Burton, J. Oh fuck. Jenny Burton from the Bonn Station a couple of years back. The one they called the Brocken Witch. 


“I’m surprised we haven’t met before, but Bonn was never your stamping ground, was it?”


Wilderness sat.


“Berlin,” he said simply.


“And your reputation in Berlin precedes you. In fact, I’m amazed the things you got up to in Berlin last year didn’t sink you. But . . . that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? Alec wants you out of the way.”


Wilderness said nothing. If she was going to prattle on about his reputation, he’d neither defend nor agree.


“Let’s get one thing straight from the start, shall we? You won’t be playing Cowboys and Indians on my turf. You won’t be pulling any stunts like the one you staged at Invalidenstraße. You’re a cultural attaché.”

John Lawton infuses Hammer to Fall with ironic, dispassionate humor, never more so than Wilderness’s cover story. He’s supposed to promote British films by hosting movie nights in tiny villages dotted around the Finnish countryside. His current repertoire is unimpressive, ranging from The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) to Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949): “all marvellous . . . in their way . . . in their time . . .  but this wasn’t their time . . . this was 1966. London was swinging.” In his sturdy beast of a car, referred to as the Mog, Wilderness comes up with a list that includes This Sporting Life, Darling, and A Hard Day’s Night. He considers The Spy Who Came in from the Cold but that’s a bridge too far. He’s quite disappointed when Darling (an Oscar winner) goes “down like a lead balloon.”

“Ya know what I like. A good, smutty comedy. Women with big tits. The odd knob joke. How about a Carry On? Saw a cracker the last time I was in London. Carry on Cabby. Sid James. Do they come any better than Sid James?”

So much for “arty farty stuff.” Wilderness’s nemesis—boredom—kicks in. There’s “nothing to spy on,” so perhaps he should get sloshed. Momo, a new acquaintance, tells him to sit down.

Then he splashed something as transparent as Wilderness’s cover into the glasses and handed them out. Pastorius got the plastic cup. 

“Bottoms up.”

Bruce spoke first. “This is good stuff. Not sure we’ve ever landed better.”

“Vodka?” said Wilderness.

“That’d be one name for it, but it’s got dozens. Kilju . . . pontikku . . . ponantza . . . tuliliemi . . .”



So what does Wilderness decide to do? It’s along the lines of selling snow to the Eskimos. He decides to smuggle “vodka across the rather porous border into the USSR.” A couple of successful runs later, “his old KGB pal Kostya” shows up. This is a good place to leave Wilderness but suffice to say, he won’t be in the Finnish wilderness for long—MI6 back in London tells him a “critical component in the casing of the atomic bomb” is being mined in the area. Wilderness is a lightning rod for trouble and danger—and his sardonic, deadpan approach to life’s vicissitudes adds to the pleasure of reading Hammer to Fall.
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John Holderness aka Joe Wilderness is one heck of a guy.  He's an MI6 Officer who has his paws into money making enterprises and you know, espionage.  He's been exiled to Finland where he ends up smuggling vokka with KGB officer Kostya.  That's not the real story though.  There's a lot going on here- cobalt, Prague Spring, internal betrayal, Parliament, and more.  Not having read the earlier books, I felt a bit at sea sorting out who was who and how they related to each other.  Thanks to the publisher for the ARC.  Fans of the British espionage novel, especially those who like historical settings, will enjoy this.
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What a story especially for those who have been following Joe’s exploits those of Troy’s. Joe survives an assignment to Finland while finding time making some illicit deals and then gets assigned to Czechoslovakia. This time he is a real spook managing an asset with the cover of being a tractor salesman that he fulfils with great aplomb earning money in a legal enterprise for once! In this we also meet up with old friends and it is nice to learn that Troy is finally happily settled in his old age with a feisty wife to keep him in line. It is most interesting to learn of life under the yoke of Russia and how people try to cope and struggle to be free and of all the resulting political manoeuvring. Things never last and Joe’s cover gets blown and his asset wasted. He gets tipped off and runs for his life, but he then tries to make a last deal for sentiments sake, and his luck finally runs out. All loose ends are tied up, but is it the end of Joe?? Hope not.
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From smuggling coffee in post-war Berlin to smuggling bootleg vodka in Finland in the 1960s, Joe Holderness, AKA Joe Wilderness, uses his position in Intelligence to his advantage.  When he misjudged a situation in Finland he was recalled to England.  There are those who would like to see his head on a platter, but he is quickly sent to Dublin, where he is enrolled in a course for the Czech language.  His assignment is to go in deep cover as a tractor salesman, which allows him to travel through Czechoslovakia and maintain contact with agents.  It is a time of unrest and the Russian takeover of Czechoslovakia, making the intelligence crucial for MI6.

John Lawton is known for his Inspector Troy novels.  Though Troy is now retired, he makes an appearance when he is persuaded to take a position at the embassy in Prague.  Accompanied by his wife, she also plays an important role and their appearance is a welcome one.  While this is the third in the Joe Wilderness series, Lawton’s story provides enough background to allow this to be read as a stand-alone.  This is an excellent entry to the Wilderness series and Lawton leaves an opening that hints at more to come.  This is highly recommended for fans of political intrigue and historical fiction.

I would like to thank NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for providing this novel for my review.
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Another un-put-downable new Lawton thriller ..and the wonderful Troy from earlier series turns up.  Witty, smart dialogue easily sets out anomalous behaviour as we see character progress in Wilderness novels,  he turns from adroit smuggler with common horse sense into spy tracing lives and goods .. knowing when to compromise.  But essentially, he's a decent man.  We keep up with fortunes of his first wife,  Nell, although his new wife is strategically placed in British spy service to make it reasonable for wilderness to to lapse into previous bad behaviour when he's bored in Finland where he's sent after mucking up an incident. I'm always sad when Lawton's novels end .. I can never get enough of them.  This is sensational addition.
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I dislike it when marketers say “for fans of such-and-such an author” when trying to sell a different author’s work, but I’m going to say this anyway: If you loved Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, give John Lawton’s Joe Wilderness series a try—and his Frederick Troy series as well.  Joe isn’t quite as cynical as Bernie, but he’s not far off, and Lawton is nearly as good as Kerr when it comes to depicting wartime/Cold War Europe, especially Berlin.

It’s hard to slot Lawton’s books into some genre like espionage, mystery or historical fiction.  Lawton himself gave the best description: “historical, political thrillers with a big splash of romance, wrapped up in a coat of noir.”

Some background on Joe Wilderness from the two prior books, Then We Take Berlin and The Unfortunate Englishman:  First of all, Joe Wilderness is a nickname.  His real name is John Wilfrid Holderness.  He was born in low circumstances in Limehouse in the East End of London.  His abusive father is long gone and his tippler mother was killed in a bar in a daylight bombing raid on London in 1941.  Joe is raised by his grandparents in Whitechapel, London (which you may recognize as Jack the Ripper’s killing grounds).  Grandfather Abner Riley is a talented burglar, and introduces Joe to some of the tricks of the trade.

Drafted when the war is already over, Joe doesn’t do well at RAF training camp because he won’t put up with the NCOs bullying a mentally slow fellow draftee.  Luckily (?) for Joe, he is pulled out of the unit when he is discovered to have an IQ of 169.  He’s also found to have an amazing facility for languages and is sent off to Cambridge to learn Russian and German, which of course are tremendously useful languages in the immediate post-World War II era.

Joe is sent to the wreckage of Berlin, where his job is to examine what Germans called the Fragebogen, where they were required to answer questions designed to ferret out Nazis.  You had to “pass” the questions to get what they called a “Persilschein,” the document that proved they were not considered to be an enemy or a threat, and could qualify for good jobs.

Joe meets a cast of colorful characters and becomes involved in the black market in a big way.  He learns Berlin inside and out, which comes in handy a couple of decades later when one of his old pals asks him to smuggle his grandmother out of East Berlin.

Joe also meets and falls in love with a young German woman named Nell.  Nell is a not enamored of Joe’s extracurriculars and that eventually leads to her leaving him.

After his time in Berlin, Joe is taken on by British intelligence, where he has adventures that would make James Bond a little envious—except they’re more realistic than the James Bond stories.  They include a 1960s prisoner swap between Britain and the USSR on a bridge between East and West Berlin that goes spectacularly wrong.

That leaves out a lot, but it sets the stage for this third book, which opens after that botched bridge exchange.  Joe isn’t the most popular guy in the service as a result and is sent to rusticate in Finland, where he gets involved in another black market scheme.  Eventually he ends up in Prague during the Prague Spring uprising.  The political ferment makes Prague a hotbed of espionage and draws in many of the characters from Joe’s old days in Berlin.

These books are truly excellent.  They’re thrilling adventures, but grounded in history and humanity.  If you have any interest in the time and place, I highly recommend them.
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I had just devoured my first John Lawton book ("Second Violin") when the opportunity to read an advanced copy of "Hammer to Fall" came my way, so of course I jumped at it. It's one of those spy novels that you read as much for the characters as for the plot, and it didn't disappoint. Given how well Prague was evoked, I assume that the depictions of Finland are equally accurate. I might have enjoyed it a bit more if I'd read the previous books featuring the protagonist, Joe Harkness—certain events and relationships were alluded to but not spelled out—but now that makes me more eager to explore them.

Thank you, Grove Atlantic and NetGalley, for providing me with a free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Hammer to Fall is another fabulous novel by John Lawton. I feel despair when I finish Lawton’s books. I know I won’t see another for at least 2 years.

Lawton uses vignettes that move through time and location. Most authors can’t really pull this off and only serve to be annoying. Lawton is the exception. I know this is leading to something and his use of well researched history and character development make’s it enjoyable.

Joe Wilderness takes us on a tour of Cold War Finland as a Cultural Attache showing films in the small towns of Lapland. And of course there’s a little smuggling thrown in.

From there Joe becomes a successful tractor salesman in Czechoslovakia.

Even if you’re not a Lawton reader, read this book.

I’ve tried to reveal minimal spoilers but I will give you this. The pig and the Fat Man make an appearance. Enjoy.
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Hail, hail the gang’s all here. There’s Wilderness, Eddie, Tosca, Frank, Nell and the Troy brothers amongst others. 

This is the third instalment of the exploits of the cat burglar turned spy Joe Holderness aka Wilderness and the story takes us to Finland, Prague and of course Berlin as we zig zag back and forth in time and place. 

As always with John Lawton the book is beautifully written and full of erudition, history, allusions and witty aphorisms. 

It would be hard to extract the most from it without having read the two previous books - or indeed the myriad volumes of the Troy story given how so many characters from them all pop in and out of the manuscript. 

I have really enjoyed the Wilderness trilogy but they are not as strong or engrossing as the Troy series. 

I was tickled pink to learn the identity of Troy’s career change and the identity of his second wife.

Any book by Lawton is a veritable treat and this is no exception. 

The ending is suitably vague to allow for another Wilderness book and hopefully we will get the opportunity to read more about Troy - one of my favourite fictional characters.
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