Traitor's Gate by Michael Ridpath

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Traitor's Gate by Michael Ridpath

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: An exciting and historically insightful fictionalisation of Berlin in 1938 through the eyes of an Englishman dragged towards its darker side. We may know the outcome for Germany but the outcome for reluctant spy Conrad de Lancey is far from cut and dried. Riveting stuff!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: June 2013
Publisher: Head of Zeus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1781851807

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Oxford-educated Englishman Conrad de Lancey is haunted by the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, his ideals laying in the dust along with the cause for which he fought. Therefore, on a visit to his mother's German homeland, Conrad shies away from involvement in any resistance to the rise of the National Socialist Party. However, he will soon have little choice as tragic events drag him into a world of espionage, brutality and fear, culminating in a conspiracy to kill Hitler himself.

English writer Michael Ridpath has a full back catalogue that includes the Fire and Ice series of Icelandic/Nordic noir detective novels (and a 2013 CWS Dagger award nomination), eight financial thrillers using the experience from his old day job and now this, his first war novel, that just happens to be a real stonker.

Most of the characters are extremely complex. Conrad, for instance, was an idealistic young man before witnessing the deaths caused by intentional friendly (!) fire in the Spanish Civil War which, to add more layers, he'd fought in despite his pacifist Quaker background. So, by 1938, he doesn’t know what to believe any more and yet, as the disintegration of German order grabs him by the throat, realises he can't sit back and do nothing. On the other side there's his former university friend Theo. He's sympathetic while also a lieutenant in Hitler's Abwehr so whose side is he on? The only chap that seems to have come out of central casting is the SS interrogator, Klaus Schalke but as the story progresses and we're shown his damaged psyche we realise that we mistook him for a stereotype because such a profession attracts such people.

With the same deft touch that lovers of David Downing's John Russell stories will recognise, these fictional figures mingle with a who's who of Nazi Germany, including a cameo role for martyred clergyman Dietrich Bonheoffer. This is supported by some great detail along the way. I didn't realise that the Nazis weren't a united force and that the SS and Abwehr were competing organisations with only a flag in common or that the British passport control office in Berlin did so much more, both factoids being used for some terrific tenterhook-acceleration.

Knowing the historical outcome, our attention and hopes turn to the unknowable: how does that letter in the prologue foreshadows Conrad's fate? Some of the plot may be predictable but then so is history; the trick is having an author talented enough not to let it spoil the seat-edging suspense. Needless to say that Mr Ridpath delivers admirably.

He's also gifted enough to silently invite us to contribute what we know to deepen the effect. E.g. we groan inwardly at the comment Let's hope Chamberlain makes the right decision. as we remember that piece of paper.

To the sticklers for knowing the fact/fiction dividing line I commend the author's website once you've finished the book (to prevent spoilers) where he goes into so much more detail than I have space. This is a guy who believes in meticulous research and understands the best way to convey it.

Non-history-buffs shouldn't be put off though. This is a story in whose historical flesh pumps a heart of pure espionage thriller that will appeal to most adults looking for a story they can't leave by someone who hopefully has plenty more hist fict up his literary sleeve. We also have a review of Ridpath's Shadows Of War (Traitors).

If you’d like to read more of Mr R, we recommend Where Shadows Lie (Fire and Ice. For more of the Spanish Civil War, try The Book of the Alchemist by Adam Williams.

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