A story of the Cold War

John Le Carre’s novel A Small Town in Germany is set in Bonn, the capital of West Germany before reunification. The book is written about the period at the end of the 1960s when the United Kingdom sought entry into what was then known as the Common Market. It’s a time of uncertainty; the last war is still a factor and there’s fear of a growing threat from the Soviet Union. This is the height of the Cold War. In the midst of popular right wing risings in the country and the political uncertainty the British Embassy in Bonn continues its work. But then one of its staff members disappears and with him goes some of the most important files.

Alan Turner is sent from London to find out what has happened. He needs to know if Leo Harting has defected and sold secrets to the Soviets but no one in the embassy seems to know much about the missing man and they don’t really want to cooperate with Turner.

Most of the story is seen through the eyes of Alan Turner who is a bluff Northerner and definitely not of the same social class as the majority of the diplomats. Class is a big issue in this story because Harting also doesn’t really belong and it becomes obvious that his background has made a difference in how people treated him and explains why he was often overlooked. It also becomes apparent that Harting played on the fact that many of the other staff were uncomfortable around him in order to achieve what he wanted.

This is a book where the plot slowly unfolds as Turner discovers more about his prey. On his way to the answer he upsets a lot of people but uncovers all their secrets as well. The plot is beautifully paced with each revelation hiding yet more secrets.

This is a brilliantly written book and almost, although not quite, the equal of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which I review here. I listened to it on audio where it was narrated by Michael Jayston who added to the enjoyment with his use of different voices.

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