After reading C J Samson’s Dominion it was interesting to read another book set in the same period. Simon Tolkien’s new book, Orders from Berlin, takes place in a London suffering from the Blitz, with Hitler’s forces massing on the French coast and preparations being made in London for what seems to be the inevitable German invasion.
The book opens at a briefing session in which Adolf Hitler is quizzing his commanders and generals about when to invade Britain. We see the meeting thought the eyes of Hitler’s right hand man and head of the Gestapo, Richard Heydrich, who finds himself disgusted by the time-serving military men who in his eyes lack the necessary resolve to take action while the formidable British Navy still has command of the waters of the English Channel.
After the meeting, Heydrich and Hitler discuss the situation and Hitler reveals that he is more concerned about the threat from the East and he would prefer to make peace with Britain – but only Winston Churchill stands in the way: Churchill has possessed the British people with his hatred of the Nazi’s and his talk of blood and sacrifice and has turned the people away from making peace with Hitler. Heydrich reveals that he has a very high quality agent in the British Secret Service who now has access at the highest levels. It should be possible for him to feed information to the British to convince them that they cannot win against Germany and that there only hope is to reach an armistice.
The scene moves to London where we sit in on a top-level meeting between intelligence chiefs. A new man, Charles Seaforth has risen through the ranks quickly by providing very high quality information from his agents in Germany. He has the ear of the chief of intelligence, but his deputy, Thorn, has serious doubts about the new man.
Following the murder of a retired intelligence chief, the book soon develops into a mixture of first-class detective fiction and an espionage story. Tolkien has complete command of his material and inter-weaves all the strands of his story into a thrilling and convincing whole – a book I could barely put down while I was reading it.
Tolkien’s descriptions of London during the Blitz are superb and obviously the product of meticulous research. The British story of the Blitz to this day tends to focus on plucky and cheerful Londoners who “carried on regardless” whereas Tolkien reminds us of the rows of cardboard coffins disintegrating in the rain revealing their gruesome contents before being deposited in mass graves. His characters fight their way past hoards of homeless people living in insanitary conditions in tube stations,
- with the stink of hundreds of unwashed bodies crammed together in the fetid, airless atmosphere. The heat was extraordinary after the cold outside; some of the men were stripped to the waist, and most of the children were half naked . . . (lying on) filthy mattresses and battered suitcases, several that were serving as beds for tiny babies.
Above ground it is little better,
- You could tell from the pushcarts and prams piled high with their remaining possessions – pots and pans and teddy bears, all that they had been able to salvage from the wreckage of their bombed-out homes. It was a nightmare existence they led, these urban dispossessed, shunted from one rest centre to another, surviving on inadequate rations until they were finally found somewhere to live.
Scenes such as this add much to the atmosphere of the book and give a sense of urgency to the quest to find the murderer. I particularly like Detective Trave who never takes things at face value but niggles away at inconvenient evidence until he finds fault with it. I also liked the character of the retired intelligence chief’s daughter Ava who brings a human interest to the novel with her struggle to understand her marriage to the awful Bertram.
I think it is the novel’s range which gives it so much interest. At one point we are following Detective Trave around London following up his murder inquiry, and then in the next chapter we find ourselves visiting Adolf Hitler in the Eagle’s Nest where is in in conference with Heydrich. The scene then changes to the headquarters of MI5 where we read of the power struggles between two senior officers, one of whom is actually a senior enemy agent. It is to Tolkien’s credit that he handles all these scenes well and makes his readers feel party to the secret scenes he portrays – at one point Heydrich visits Hitler to fine him studying a model of the mausoleum he intends to create for himself in Berlin as a memorial to his achievements (for Nazism was all along a cult of death rather than life).
This is altogether a fine book which combines the genres of police procedural, political thriller and spy story into a highly readable whole, full of 1940s wartime atmosphere.
Simon Tolkien is J R R Tolkien’s grandson and while this book bares no relationship to the Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings, Orders from Berlin shares a theme of the battle between good and evil when both sides are vying for very high stakes. I am sure Simon’s grandfather would have been proud to read this fine novel and to realise that his talent has been passed on to future generations.