On Friday, along with millions of people from all corners of the earth, I watched the opening ceremonies of London’s olympic games. A copy of David John’s Flight From Berlin lay on the coffee table, a slip of paper marking the page where I left Richard Denham and Eleanor Emerson about to risk further danger. The note on that slip of paper said “When I want to flip to the last few pages and peak at the ending, I know that the story really has me”.
Tragedy and scandal have occurred at other Olympic games: a bombing in Atlanta in 1996, the 1980 boycott of the Moscow games, athletes shot and killed by a terrorist group in 1972 Munich. But imagine Berlin in 1936, Hitler’s power and increasing daring, the rest of the world wondering when he would stop or whether he could be contained. This is the time David John has chosen for his story, a dark, sinister time.
From page one mystery draws us in. Initially David John threads two story lines, one focused on Richard Denham, a journalist bent on exposing the Nazi menace, the other on Eleanor Emerson, an Olympic athlete from the US. When they meet during a party hosted by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, the pace quickens as Hitler’s goons threaten Hannah Liebermann, a world-class fencer and Friedl Christian, a former actor with a dangerous secret. Then the Nazis turn their sights on Denham.
The reader is plunged into pre-WWII Germany complete with SS officers, Hitler youth, thuggish Brownshirts, and growing anti-semitic hysteria. Amidst the intensity of competition we feel the brutality of Hitler’s world. Eleanor’s scenes reveal the controlling nature of Avery Brundage, head of the US Olympic mission who openly admired Nazi Germany and deliberately excluded two Jewish athletes from the relay team. Through Denham we see those who fear Hitler cannot be stopped.
David John blends real and fictitious characters to create a high stakes scenario in which Denham and Eleanor are unexpected heroes. Having read In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, I was delighted that Mr John included William Dodd and his daughter Martha. They seemed like old friends. He also situates figures like Goebbels, Goering, William Randolph Hearst, Hugo Eckener, Helen Hayes, Jesse Owens, Himmler and Adolph Hitler to great effect.
Structured like a three act play, Flight From Berlin has all the ingredients of a great story. Part I ends with a dramatic turning point and compelling questions. What was the mysterious dossier? Why did the Nazis think it was in Denham’s possession. Will Richard and Eleanor survive? In Part II the shocking contents of the dossier are revealed and tension heightens as David John reveals the couple’s daring plan. Part III is full of back and forth action that keeps the pace taut until the very end.
Do I have any caveats? Eleanor Emerson is not as well developed as Richard Denham. She begins as a stereotype, a brash American whose bold impudence gets her dismissed from the US Olympic team. Her transformation into loving partner and skilled espionage agent came too quickly for me. A second comment has to do with the ending. No spoilers! I found several spots where I thought ‘here’s where it will end’ but the story continued with another twist.
Neither caveat takes away from David John’s well constructed, tension-filled novel. He has another in the works – I hope it has the same exciting blend of history and story.
Note: A Writer of History was not intended to include book reviews but when a woman from Harper Collins asked, I could not resist a story set amongst the same world events as Unravelled, a novel I have written.