Hammer to Fall by John Lawton #BookReview #BlogTour

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.

I'm thrilled to be hosting the blog tour for Hammer to Fall today. Many thanks to John Lawton, Grove Press and Ayo Onatade for inviting me and for y advance digital copy of the novel.

Hammer to Fall is John Lawton's third book to feature Joe 'Wilderness' Holderness as the principal character, although in his shared universe of books and characters, there are crossovers and just as he has appeared in Frederick Troy's adventures, so Troy makes an appearance here.
The book opens in post-war Berlin when the divided city became a magnet for various black-market activities and schemes. The young Wilderness is part of a gang of 'schiebers' which translates as sliders - the underhand, the petty thieves, forgers, smugglers etc. They mostly deal in coffee and cigarettes but an order for peanut butter proves to be less successful. Joe's girlfriend, Nell is the only honest one amongst them - so much so that she refuses to eat any of their ill-gotten gains, choosing instead to live like other common Berliners and endure 'austerity' meals of whatever is available at the market. It's a relationship that is doomed to fail, she is intensely moral and his aptitude for lying means he lies for England, despite not being the more obvious 'Establishment' spy.
Years later, he is married to his boss's daughter and in a certain amount of trouble which sees him in the firing line following an embarrassing failed mission. He is sent to Finland - not he is told, as a punishment but rather to remove him from the centre of attention. He isn't impressed, particularly when he discovers that his cover as a Cultural Attaché means he has to drive up and down Finland, playing British films in draughty halls in order to halt the spread of Communism. With seemingly everybody able to see through his cover and bored out of his wits by his official role, it's not long before he becomes involved in a local racket smuggling moonshine vodka down to Helsinki and into the USSR. Although he is clearly an ambiguous character who us happy to use his position and contacts for his own benefit as much as for his country, there is an intriguing depth to Wilderness. He is obviously still haunted by his killing of a Soviet spy in a Vienna hotel room and has a complicated relationship with Kostya, a KGB agent with whom he has a long history. He also begins to question the impact of his job on his marriage and children, particularly after talking to a former spy whose double life has effectively cost him everything. There's a strange sort of camaraderie amongst the spies on all sides and yet this is a lonely life - a scene where he spies on his own family, unable to let them see him is especially moving. 
Later he is sent to Czechoslovakia in the months leading up to the Prague Spring. The importance of the city to both the East and West means a number of faces from his past converge here, including Kostya and Nell, and as much as Prague itself teeters on the brink of change, so to does Wilderness and as he begins to question who he is and what it is he really wants, his hand is eventually forced by events outside his control. The sense of a city desperate for something to happen is evoked beautifully, with perhaps the most poignant moment coming when Nell observes that while on the outside the Czechs are ' delightful, original, charming, funny optimists' on the inside 'they're just waiting for the hammer to fall.' 
The acerbic humour lends itself well to the sort of mischief perpetrated by the likes of Wilderness and encapsulates well the sort of people who are chosen to live in the shadows The introduction of Frederick Troy and his wife, Anna is welcome too, with the latter proving to have a particularly forthright method of providing assistance to a group of Czech students. Nevertheless, for all the lighthearted scenes, there is still a sense of foreboding and danger to the novel, both in terms of the history of Czechoslovakia and on a more personal level as Joe must confront his deepest fears. The scenes leading up to the finale are nailbiting and perfectly paced with a truly shocking conclusion. John Lawton acknowledges that he plays with history in its strictest sense here but it doesn't matter, what Hammer to Fall achieves is a deeply atmospheric, gripping espionage novel that puts its readers firmly in Cold War Europe with characters who are flawed, authentic and always utterly engaging - I loved it. 
Hammer to Fall is published by Grove Press, purchasing links can be found here but please consider ordering through an independent bookstore if possible.

Don't miss the rest of the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author

John Lawton worked for Channel 4 for many years, and, among many others, produced Harold Pinter's 'O Superman', the least-watched most-argued-over programme of the 90s. He has written seven novels in his Troy series, two Joe Wilderness novels, the standalone Sweet Sunday, a couple of short stories and the occasional essay. He writes very slowly and almost entirely on the hoof in the USA or Italy, but professes to be a resident of a tiny village in the Derbyshire Peak District. He admires the work of Barbara Gowdy, TC Boyle, Oliver Bleeck, Franz Schubert and Clara Schumann - and is passionate about the playing of Maria Joao Pires. He has no known hobbies, belongs to no organisations and hates being photographed.