It's London, the swinging sixties, and by rights MI6 spy Joe Wilderness should be having as good a time as James Bond. But alas, in the wake of an embarrassing disaster for MI6, Wilderness has been posted to remote northern Finland in a cultural exchange program to promote Britain abroad. Bored by his work, with nothing to spy on, Wilderness finds another way to make money: smuggling vodka across the border into the USSR. He strikes a deal with old KGB pal Kostya, who explains to him there is a vodka shortage in the Soviet Union - but there is something fishy about Kostya's sudden appearance in Finland and intelligence from London points to a connection to cobalt mining in the region, a critical component in the casing of the atomic bomb. Wilderness's posting is getting more interesting by the minute, but more dangerous too.
Moving from the no-man's-land of Cold War Finland to the wild days of the Prague Spring, and populated by old friends (including Inspector Troy) and old enemies alike, Hammer to Fall is a gripping tale of deception and skulduggery, of art and politics, a page-turning story of the always riveting life of the British spy.
Lawton scores another hit with his third Joe Wilderness novel (after 2016's The Unfortunate Englishman). Joe starts off in familiar territory, 1948 Berlin, where he's nominally in the Royal Air Force but in reality an MI6 agent; he's also smuggling coffee and cigarettes into East Berlin. During one of his usual deliveries, he's approached by a young Russian, Konstantin "Kostya" Zolotukhin, who wants to place an order for a hundred jars of peanut butter. Joe agrees, setting in place a relationship with Kostya that re-emerges in 1968 England. As the years pass, Joe's often in trouble with various authorities, until his father-in-law and spy boss, Alec Burne-Jones, decides to get Joe out of the U.K. for a while and sends him to Finland, where Joe takes up his old smuggling habits. Most of Joe's old cronies and even his Berlin lover, Nell Burkhardt, appear, and it's a pleasure for series fans to see them all again. Terrific writing, a complex plot with a twist ending, and a roguish lead will have readers eagerly awaiting his next adventure.
Under the hammer
British TV producer/director and crime/mystery novelist
It's the 1960s. The Cold War has turned decidedly colder since Brezhnev took over from Khrushchev. MI6 spy Joe Holderness aka Wilderness isn't your typical Oxbridge educated James Bond type, he's more like Harry Palmer in The Ipcress Files: an East End boy from broken violent home with a penchant with illegal side projects like smuggling. He's good at spying though, and he's married to the daughter of a big wig, so he gets away with more than he should. This time, he's exiled to Finland to avoid a parliamentary inquiry into his activities, discovers stuff that he wasn't meant to, which leads to redeployment and more espionage in Czechoslovakia at the time of the Prague Spring and Russian invasion, yada, yada. There's an old flame of Joe's from post-war Berlin involved, who now works for Willi Brandt. The plot felt to me like a melange rather than a coherent whole, as if thrown together to fulfil contractual obligations by an author capable of better.
Joe is suitably damaged goods and remarkably well read for a barrow boy. His father-in-law is long suffering, as is his missus. His old flame is a law abiding citizen until she's not. (An easy line to cross in Prague in 1968). The supporting cast are well drawn. Some are colourful, others dead.
Third person mainly from Joe's POV, but also from several others including the old flame.
Mr Lawton is obviously a pro, which is why his frequent (5 times at least) use of the word crepuscular annoyed me so much. As a rule of thumb, I don't think a word like that should appear more than once in a 350 page novel, if at all.
Entertaining at times, amusing too, but annoying at others for reasons noted above.