“An Elegant Lie is one that people accept, not because they are unaware of any alternative story – most people are – but because the lie reinforces what they want to believe. Lies are like parasites. The good ones you can live with. The bad ones just ruin your world.” Sam Eastland.
It’s crazy to be talking about books of the year in early February, but if this novel doesn’t make my list it will have been a hell of a year for noir fiction. This superior thriller is a highly literary spy story set at the beginning of the Cold War. The lines are being drawn, positions entrenched and tensions are mounting. The Elegant Lie opens a window on the complexities of the escalating Cold War as the story takes place in 1949. German democracy has yet to find it’s feet after WWII, the country is still in the grip of the black market, a dark shadowy world of smugglers, ex-Nazis and spies. It’s a world of lies…
Sam Eastland is the author of the popular Emerald Eye series featuring Stalin’s top agent Pekkala, one of the most memorable and likeable characters in modern thriller fiction. The seven “Red” novels make up one of the most entertaining series in historical crime fiction. I was sad to see that Berlin Red was Pekkala’s last outing but not unhappy to find that he finally achieves some peace. After all, life moves on and as a novelist Eastland has moved on, his latest novel, The Elegant Lie, is a standalone story and it ups the game. This is a thriller that manages to be exciting and accessible but has a greater literary intention. The Elegant Lie is ambitious and succeeds in reimagining post war Germany and the origins of the Cold War, offering an insight into the times and the psychology of the age. It’s a thought-provoking read, Eastland brings a wealth of knowledge about the political situation and an understanding of human behaviour to his story. There is a balance and beauty in The Elegant Lie and a wonderfully poetic ending. The kind of unity of purpose that I associate with very good contemporary literature; where every word counts, where themes interconnect and subtle meanings emerge. Eastland explores the theme of the “lie” in all its forms; deception, forgery, deflection, saving face, the white lie, the whopper, the kind lie and The Elegant Lie. The result is an accomplished and polished novel that combines the best of Paul Watkins, contemporary novelist, and the finest thriller writing skills of his alter ego, Sam Eastland.
For decades during the Cold War the governments in the West and the East fostered the attitude of them and us, creating for their respective audiences a narrative that was black and white. Just like the westerns of the forties, you know the good guy from the bad by the colour of his hat. The Elegant Lie looks at the cloak of patriotism, the self-justification and the use of the ideological shield. The Cold War was a two-sided lie that finally fell apart, only to re-ignite, and that’s why this novel is relevant.
Köln 1949, American Nathan Carter is up with the dawn on his last day in Langsdorf prison, a former military barracks, the clothes he wears were left behind by the soldiers before the war. Carter went down for masterminding the audacious robbery of a lorry of cigarettes from a US army supply depot. Outside the city is still in ruins, the black market thrives and the East West divide is hardening. Carter can’t get away from the gaol quick enough, when he gets to town a sedan pulls up, the driver, Anton Ritter, insists Carter meets his boss. They drive to the Bleihof club where Hanno Dasch and his daughter Teresa are waiting. Dasch wants carter’s dodgy contacts to boost his business interests with the Americans. If Carter passes the test he will become one of Dasch’s gang of black marketeer/smugglers. However, Carter is really a CIA operative, a former undercover policeman, he has to infiltrate Dasch’s empire and bring it down.
“I have nothing personal against the man. He was never anything more than a symptom of human desire, without which crimes like his would not exist.” [Carter’s handler]
It’s a simple plan but Carter soon discovers that something far more deadly than smuggling whisky and cigarettes is going on. As the tension between the Americans and the Russians ramps up the lines between a smuggling operation and the murky world of espionage gets blurred. Who is actually running the game and what are they trying to achieve? Carter will be lied to, in a world of lies, it may come down to who tells the elegant lie… it will be a matter for life and death for Carter to find the right people to trust.
The setting is faultless and the writing is reminiscent of the best kind of spy/thriller literature. The Elegant Lie sits very well among the best historical crime novels on Germany (Cay Redemacher, Philip Kerr, Volker Kutscher). A richly rewarding read.
PS: My interview with Sam Eastland is also published on nbmagazine.co.uk today. There’s some very exciting news for fans Pekkala. Contrary to what I said in my review…
Paul Burke 5/5
The Elegant Lie by Sam Eastland
Faber & Faber 9780571335695 pbk Feb 2019