A Famous-Five style adventure for grown-ups – CARDIGANSHIRE / LONDON
Ten Great Books set in Berlin
3rd February 2018
Ten great books set in Berlin.
For the next in our ‘Ten great books set in…..’ series, we have chosen Berlin. This intriguing city has a tumultuous past, but has been reborn as a youthfully vibrant centre for arts, culture and music. What could possibly be better at the end of a busy day exploring history and culture than to curl up with a book that is firmly set in this fascinating city? It might even help you plan the next day’s itinerary.
The ten books below – novels, travelogues and memoirs – are all highly rated on the TripFiction database and in no particular order:
Stealing the Future by Max Hertzberg
A counter-factual spy thriller set in East Berlin in the early 1990s. The GDR still exists, but is on the edge of economic breakdown, partly due to a coal-producing region that is in the process of seceding from the GDR. Against this backdrop a prominent politician is found crushed to death, and the investigator has to work out who is involved: is it the Russians, the West Germans, British Intelligence or even the remains of the disbanded Stasi?
The research and engaging writing make this book believable – it is an intelligent page turner….and it even includes a tour of East Berlin – perfect reading for a trip.
The Moment by Douglas Kennedy
Thomas Nesbitt is a divorced writer in the midst of a rueful middle age. Living a very private life in Maine, in touch only with his daughter and still trying to recover from the end of a long marriage, his solitude is disrupted one wintry morning by the arrival of a box that is postmarked Berlin. The name on the box – Dussmann -unsettles him completely, for it belongs to the woman with whom he had an intense love affair twenty-six years ago in Berlin, at a time when the city was cleaved in two and personal and political allegiances were frequently haunted by the deep shadows of the Cold War.
Refusing initially to confront what he might find in that box, Thomas nevertheless is forced to grapple with a past he has never discussed with any living person and in the process relive those months in Berlin when he discovered, for the first and only time in his life, the full, extraordinary force of true love. But Petra Dussmann, the woman to whom he lost his heart, was not just a refugee from a police state, but also someone who lived with an ongoing sorrow that gradually rewrote both their destinies.
A love story of great epic sweep and immense emotional power, The Moment explores why and how we fall in love – and the way we project on to others that which our hearts so desperately seek.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré
From the master of spy thrillers, John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a gripping story of love and betrayal at the height of the Cold War in this quintessential city of espionage.
Alex Leamas is tired. It’s the 1960s, he’s been out in the cold for years, spying in the shadow of the Berlin Wall for his British masters. He has seen too many good agents murdered for their troubles. Now Control wants to bring him in at last – but only after one final assignment. He must travel deep into the heart of Communist Germany and betray his country, a job that he will do with his usual cynical professionalism. But when George Smiley tries to help a young woman Leamas has befriended, Leamas’s mission may prove to be the worst thing he could ever have done.
In le Carré’s breakthrough work of 1963, the spy story is reborn as a gritty and terrible tale of men who are caught up in politics beyond their imagining.
Angel Avenger by Tim Wickenden
September 1960. In the Spandauer forest Detectives Max Becker and Bastian Döhl, from the Berlin Kriminalpolizei, find a naked, tortured man tied to a tree.
A cryptic message hangs from his neck.
When another body appears, Max is sure it won’t be the last.
The press dub the killer, Der Waldscharfrichter (The Forest Executioner) and graphic tattoos on the bodies suggest that the victims are Russians with a criminal past.
As more bodies and messages appear, they lead Max and his team to a horrific past event, wounds that run deep in the Berlin psyche, plunging Max into a conflict between his sense of duty and justice.
Fatherland by Robert Harris
Fatherland is set in an alternative world where Hitler has won the Second World War.
It is April 1964 and one week before Hitler’s 75th birthday. Xavier March, a detective of the Kriminalpolizei, is called out to investigate the discovery of a dead body in a lake near Berlin’s most prestigious suburb. As March discovers the identity of the body, he uncovers signs of a conspiracy that could go to the very top of the German Reich.
And, with the Gestapo just one step behind, March, together with an American journalist, is caught up in a race to discover and reveal the truth – a truth that has already killed, a truth that could topple governments, a truth that will change history.
If you’re a fan of other Robert Harris novels,sometimes also blurring fact and fiction, read our separate blog post from the #AuthorsOnLocation series.
If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr
Berlin 1934. The Nazis have been in power for just eighteen months but already Germany has seen some frightening changes. As the city prepares to host the 1936 Olympics, Jews are being expelled from all German sporting organisations – a blatant example of discrimination.
Forced to resign as a homicide detective with Berlin’s Criminal Police, Bernie is now house detective at the famous Adlon Hotel. Two bodies are found – one a businessman and the other a Jewish boxer. As Bernie digs to unearth the truth, he discovers a vast labour and construction racket designed to take advantage of the huge sums the Nazis are spending to showcase the new Germany to the world.
It is a plot that finds its dramatic and violent conclusion twenty years later in pre-revolutionary Cuba.
The Innocent by Ian McEwan
Into this divided city, wrenched between East and West, between past and present, comes twenty-five-year-old Leonard Marnham, assigned to a British-American surveillance team.Though only a pawn in an international plot that is never fully revealed to him, Leonard uses his secret work to escape the bonds of his ordinary life – and to lose his unwanted innocence.
The promise of his new life begins to be fulfilled as Leonard becomes a crucial part of the surveillance team, while simultaneously being initiated into a new world of love and sex by Maria, a beautiful young German woman. It is a promise that turns to horror in the course of one terrible evening – a night when Leonard Marnham learns just how much of his innocence he’s willing to shed.
1989 – The Berlin Wall (My Part in its Downfall) by Peter Millar
It was an event that changed history, bringing the Cold War to a sudden, unexpected end and seeing the collapse not just of Communism but of the Soviet Union itself. Stereotypes disappeared overnight, and the maps of a continent had to be redrawn.
Peter Millar was in the middle of it, literally caught at Checkpoint Charlie between bemused East German border guards and drunk Western revellers prematurely celebrating the end of an era. For over a decade Millar had been living in East Berlin, as well as Warsaw and Moscow, and in this engaging, garrulous, bibulous memoir we follow him on a journey through the heart of Cold War Europe, from the carousing bars of 1970s Fleet Street to the East Berlin corner pub with its eclectic cast of characters who embodied the reality of living on the wrong side of the Wall.
We relive the night that it all disintegrated, and its curious domino-like effect on Eastern Europe. We find out how Peter Millar felt when he opened his Stasi file and discovered which of his friends had or hadn’t been spying on him.
A compelling, amazingly insightful and entertaining read, this book swiftly dispatches the mythology of the Fall and brings Peter Millar’s characteristic wit and insight to one of the most significant moments in history.
Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck
One of the great contemporary European writers takes on Europe’s biggest issue. Richard has spent his life as a university professor, immersed in the world of books and ideas, but now he is retired, his books remain in their packing boxes and he steps into the streets of his city, Berlin. Here, on Alexanderplatz, he discovers a new community — a tent city, established by African asylum seekers.
Hesitantly, getting to know the new arrivals, Richard finds his life changing, as he begins to question his own sense of belonging in a city that once divided its citizens into them and us.At once a passionate contribution to the debate on race, privilege and nationality and a beautifully written examination of an ageing man’s quest to find meaning in his life, Go, Went, Gone showcases one of the great contemporary European writers at the height of her powers.
Stasiland by Anna Funder
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell: shortly afterwards the two Germanies reunited, and East Germany ceased to exist.
In a country where the headquarters of the secret police can become a museum overnight, and one in 50 East Germans were informing on their countrymen and women, there are a thousand stories just waiting to get out.
Anna Funder tells extraordinary tales from the underbelly of the former East Germany – she meets Miriam, who as a 16-year-old might have started World War III, visits the man who painted the line which became the Berlin Wall and gets drunk with the legendary “Mik Jegger” of the East, once declared by the authorities to his face to “no longer to exist”.
Written with wit and literary flair, Stasiland provides a riveting insight into life behind the wall.
Andrew for the TripFiction Team
Which titles would you add to the list? Remember there are more than 150 to choose from in the Berlin listings on TripFiction…! Each will transport you to some excellent fiction, travelogues or memoirs set in the city. Or you may have your own favourites you would like to include. Please leave your thoughts in the Comments box below.
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I’m probably showing my age here, but Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels – ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ and ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’ – are still wonderful first-hand portraits of the city under the Weimar Republic, and even more fascinating when read alongside Philip Kerr’s extraordinarily evocative Bernie Gunther series of novels.
Great list, in particular ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ and ‘Stasiland’. I was in Berlin this time last year and took a tour of the former Stasi prison; eye-opening stuff. Would also highly recommend James Remmer’s ‘Out of Mecklenburg: The Unwilling Spy’.