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Berlin 1933: When the parties stop...the dying begins
The city that’s been a beacon of liberation during the 1920s is about to become a city of deadly oppression. BBC foreign correspondent Simon Sampson risks his life in a bid to save thousands of gay men from the growing Nazi threat.
This is the second in the Simon Sampson mystery series. The first, A Death in Bloomsbury, was hailed as ‘a good old-fashioned John Buchan-esque mystery reworked for the twenty-first century’.
Simon moves to Berlin where he meets British author Christopher Isherwood and his lover Heinz. He’s also reunited with his banter-partner Florence Miles, better known to her friends as Bill. She’s recruited him into the British intelligence services and he’s got the task of hunting down communist spies.
But when Simon is ordered to spy on an old college friend, his loyalties are brought into question. Who are his real enemies? And how much can he trust his masters?
Here’s an extract from A Death in Berlin. To set the context, it’s January 1933 and BBC reporter Simon Sampson has been sent to Berlin as the corporation’s first radio correspondent. He’s also recently been recruited by Britain’s intelligence services SIS. His controller, Florence Miles who prefers to be known as Bill, has just arrived unexpectedly in Berlin, much to Simon’s annoyance. Now read on.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Simon stood in the doorway of the small drawing room. A woman with her hair cut in the Eton Crop style was settled in one of two armchairs next to the fireplace. She wore a black trouser suit with a starched shirt and tie. A cigarette hung from her lips, its ashy tip perilously close to scattering its contents down her lapel. She took the cigarette from her mouth and stubbed it out in an ashtray.READ MORE
“Waiting for my tea, darling.” She dropped her copy of the Völkischer Beobachter newspaper onto the floor and looked up at Simon. “Is the service in the Adlon always this bad? I’m surprised you made such a fuss about staying here. I’ve been served more promptly in the buffet at Paddington Station.”
“For God’s sake, Bill.” Simon closed the door and leaned against it. “Don’t be infuriating.”
Bill smoothed down the front of her jacket and crossed her legs. “Darling, don’t get back into the habit of calling me Bill. There’s a risk you might be foolish enough to say it in front of the hotel staff. Or worse, some military wallah. You must call me Aunt Nightingale.”
“You’ve got too many damn names.” Simon stalked across the room to sit in the second chair by the fireplace. “I think I’ll call you Florence Miles and have done with it.”
“Don’t, whatever you do, use my real name.” Bill narrowed her eyes and glowered at him. “I thought at least you might be slightly pleased to see me. Didn’t you miss me?”
“Miss you? I’ve not even been here a month. I’ve hardly had time to do anything.”
“We’ve noticed.” Bill took out a silver case and lit another cigarette.
“Is that why you’re here?” Simon was furious. “Have you become nanny Miles, or Nightingale or whatever your damn name is? Sent all this way by your bosses to give me a talking-to?”
“I’ve come here because they were getting in a bit of a flap about what’s happening here and I thought you could do with a hand.”
“They’ve got every reason to ‘get in a bit of a flap’.” Simon waved the telegram at her. “You’ve heard Hindenburg’s made Hitler chancellor I presume?”
“Really?” Bill took the telegram from his hand and scanned its contents. “Poor Simon. Your editor seems awfully cross. Although I’m not surprised. You really ought to have broken the story to him, not the other way round.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Come,” Bill called. A waiter walked in with a large silver tray.
Bill waved in the direction of a table by the window. “You’ve taken your time. Put it over there.”
The waiter mumbled an apology, deposited the tray, and left the room.
“Do you have to be so damn rude to everybody?” Simon asked.
“What, him?” Bill looked puzzled. “He’s only a flunky. Be a darling and pour the tea, will you? I asked for a cup for you.” She smiled beneficently at Simon. “You see how considerate I am to you?”
“I haven’t got time for this.” Simon got to his feet. “I’ve got a call to make and a broadcast to prepare. Bloody hell, you’re impossible, woman.”
“And don’t, whatever you do, address me that way,” Bill said sharply. “That’s downright rude. Bring the tea over here and calm down.”
“How can I ‘calm down’?” Simon struggled to steady his hand as he picked up the heavy teapot. Bill had ordered Earl Grey with lemon. At least she had got something right. “You don’t even do me the courtesy of letting me know you’re coming. And the first thing you do when I walk in the room is insult me by telling me I’ve not been doing enough.” He slammed the teapot down on the tray, picked up the teacups and walked back to the fireplace. “I don’t know why I took your bloody offer to work for SIS in the first place. Especially with you as my boss.”
“Is that what this is all about?” Bill took the cup from Simon and set it down on a demi-lune table next to her chair. “Is your fragile male ego upset at the ignominy of having a woman in charge?” She patted the leg of her trouser suit. “At least I’m not wearing a dress to offend you further.”
“Don’t be absurd, Bill. You know that’s not the case.” Simon sat in the chair opposite. “Although I don’t believe for a moment you really are in charge. It seems to me you’re doing nothing more than relaying orders from—” he lowered his voice. “—Uncle Horace. A sort of go-between.”
“How dare you.” Bill’s cup rattled on its saucer. “Why do you think I’m here? That bloody man couldn’t organise an orgy in a Soho brothel.”
Simon choked on a mouthful of tea and tried not to show his amusement. He was still angry with Bill but he had missed her colourful expressions.
“I fought like crazy for you to join the Service,” Bill continued. “But I made damn sure you reported to me. I’m working hard to protect you from Uncle Horace’s flights of fancy. He’s obsessed with communists. I wouldn’t be surprised if he suspects his own grandmother of being a Bolshevik.” She tipped spilt tea from her saucer back into the cup and set it down on the table. “The problem with Uncle Horace, and to be honest with the whole of the British establishment, is that they’re so distracted by communists that they don’t see the fascist threat right under their noses.”
“Is that really why you’re here?” Simon asked. “Or have you come to lean over my shoulder and constantly tell me what I’m doing wrong?”
Simon was surprised at Bill’s forthright comments about the head of SIS. And of course he was grateful for her sheltering him from the man’s worst excesses. At the same time, he felt her arrival undermined his position in Berlin. She had given him no time to establish himself before she had come blundering over.
“Stop being so sensitive, darling.” Bill lit another cigarette and then discovered her unfinished one smouldering in the ashtray. She picked it up and puffed on both simultaneously. “Remember, I’ve been at this game a hell of a lot longer than you. Right from the beginning I’d always argued you needed a probationary period in your first assignment. That you needed someone at your side to give you a little nudge in the right direction from time to time. Be grateful I’m here. Anyway.” Bill paused to brush cigarette ash from her trousers. “We work better together, don’t we?” She exhaled a cloud of smoke in Simon’s face and smiled sweetly.
“And Uncle Horace actually approved your trip out here?” Simon coughed and fanned the smoke away. “I thought he was so concerned about costs?”
Bill stubbed out one of the cigarettes, rested the other on the edge of the ashtray, and took a drink of tea.
“Well?” Simon asked when she failed to reply. A thought crossed his mind. “Does he actually know you’re here?”
“He’s awfully busy at the moment,” Bill began. “And it’s so difficult to get a minute with him…”
“Do you mean to say you’ve jaunted out here with no official sanction?” Simon stood and walked over to the window. He watched as a large black car with Nazi pennants on the front wings drove past slowly. He craned his neck to see if the car was stopping at the front entrance. Ever since the incident at the Cosy Corner he had a constant nagging fear the authorities might pick him up. Despite his protestations, he felt a small sense of relief Bill had chosen to come to Berlin.
“I don’t need Hugh’s—I mean, Uncle Horace’s—permission every time I blow my nose.” Bill crossed the room and stood beside Simon. She leaned past him to look at the car that had stopped opposite the hotel. “Have they finally come for you?” she teased.
“Don’t even joke about things like that.” Simon turned away from the window. He shoved his hands into his pockets and sighed. “What on earth is he going to say when he finds you’ve run off?”
“Probably nothing.” Bill shrugged. “Obviously Dorothy in the Ops office knows. She organised the trip for me.”
“And what did you tell her?”
Bill patted his arm. “You worry too much, my dear. I simply told her I needed to acquaint myself with the operative support in Germany and the best way to do that was spend a few days here in Berlin.”
“Do you mean the only reason you’ve come all this way is to meet young Charters at the embassy?” Simon asked. “I can tell you now he’s a sweet young man but barely out of short trousers. Where are you recruiting your ‘operative support’ from these days? Kindergarten?”
“Oh, so they’ve transferred him to Berlin already?” Bill went back to sit in her chair. “Excellent. That was my idea. Charters may be young but he’s got a damn fine mind. He was one of the first people I recruited after I joined SIS.”
Simon followed her and sat in the opposite chair. “He works for SIS? But he’s at the embassy. I thought he was Foreign Office.”
Bill laughed. “You’ve still got an awful lot to learn. Which proves my point. Of course he’s SIS. He also happens to work for the Foreign Office.”
“And does the Foreign Office know he’s yours?”
Bill reached for her tea. “Does the BBC know you’re working for us?”
“Point taken.” Simon glanced around the room. “You know, we’ve been saying an awful lot without a thought for who might be listening in. Shouldn’t we go for a walk or something?”
“Don’t be absurd, it’s freezing out there.” Bill gestured to the wood-panelled wall behind them. “Anyway. I have thought about it. Before you arrived. I checked the room for hiding places and hollow-sounding panels. Couldn’t find a single one. No one’s secreted in the woodwork.”
Simon was surprised by her lack of concern. “You forget I come from the world of wireless. The world of advanced electronics. What if there’s a microphone hidden in here somewhere?”
“I don’t think so.” Bill snorted. “It would have to be awfully tiny and our boffins tell me no one’s managed to make one that small yet. Of course they’re all trying but it’s early days.”
“What if the Germans have succeeded?” Simon persisted. “You know as well as I do they’re world leaders in radio technology. When I met that ghastly man at the studios in Westend, he told me very smugly they were about to take delivery of some device that records sound.”
Bill waved dismissively. “Gramophone records have been around for years.”
“No, no.” Simon leaned towards her as he recalled what the new production director of German radio had told him. “He says this machine will be portable. And you can reuse the stuff it records on.”
“Really?” Bill finished her tea and put the cup back on the table next to her. “Well, I’m sure our boffins already know about these things. They’re probably working on their own version.”
She stood, walked over to the door, and opened it. “But, just in case, why don’t we go for a walk?”
The icy wind had dropped and a thinning layer of cloud permitted faint rays of sunlight to fall on the baroque buildings lining Unter den Linden. Even so, Bill shivered and inhaled deeply on her cigarette, as if its glow might give her some temporary protection from the winter weather. She strode along the wide avenue and Simon hurried to keep up. He would have preferred a more leisurely stroll.
“Shame you didn’t get posted to Monte Carlo.” She pulled her coat’s fur collar tighter around her neck. “Or Sorrento or somewhere warm like that. The only gifts Russia seems to send Berlin are communists and freezing weather.”
“It’s you who posted me here,” Simon reminded her. “I could have quite happily remained in London doing my little newsreading job at the BBC.”
“But you’d be bored to tears.” Bill dropped her cigarette on the ground and broke step briefly to stub it out with the flat of her heel. “And you know as well as I do that this kind of work suits your temperament far better. At least you get to do both jobs now.”
“Except you’ve not made it at all clear what SIS wants me to do.”
They had reached the opera house. Bill stopped abruptly to look at the playbill posted outside.
“Cosi Fan Tutti,” she read. “We should go. It’s all about lying and deceit.”
She took out her cigarette case. “I wish you’d make up your mind. First you’re angry because I’m here and apparently cramping your style. Now you say you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“I didn’t say that.” Simon took a deep breath and tried to keep his voice calm. “I said your briefing leaves a lot to be desired. ‘Keep an eye on the situation and report back’ is about the best way I can summarise it. Isn’t that what you’ve got an embassy for? What else can I add?”
“You give us a refreshingly alternative view to the bureaucrats in Wilhelmstraße,” Bill replied. “They had no idea about this big meeting coming up at the president’s palace you told us about. If it’s true.”
“There you go.” Simon was exasperated. “You don’t trust me.”
“Of course I trust you, darling.” Bill lit a cigarette and shoved the cigarette case back into her pocket. “But do you trust your source?” She held up her hand as Simon opened his mouth to answer. “No matter. That’s your judgment. For the moment at least.”
“And as for briefings,” Simon continued. “Why on earth does Uncle Horace want me to keep an eye on Justin Frobisher? More of his obsession with communists? If Justin’s a communist then I’m a card-carrying Nazi.”
“Well you’re going to have to prove it to him, aren’t you?” Bill glanced at Simon. “You’re not are you?”
“A card-carrying Nazi.”
“You’re not seriously suggesting—"
Bill laughed and patted his sleeve. “Really, Simon. I worry you’ve lost your sense of humour since you came out here. Look. Why don’t you go to Frobisher’s hotel this evening and make sure he’s arrived? Then all you need to do is keep close while he’s here. Find out who he’s meeting. Where he goes. Keep us informed.”
Simon shook his head. “It’s not as easy as that. I told you in one of my messages that I knew him at Oxford.”
A gust of wind blew down the street and Bill pulled her fur collar around her. “When you say you knew him, do you mean knew him in an occasional sense or…”
“Bill.” Simon paused. It was the first time in twelve years he had been asked the question. He decided to give an honest answer. “He was my first love. If I dare to presume what love is.”
“I see.” Bill fiddled with her cigarette and stared at the playbill on the front of the opera house. The tone of her voice suggested her mind was elsewhere. “I wasn’t aware of that.”
“Didn’t you read my message?” Simon shook his head. “I told you the assignment would be difficult.”
“You didn’t make it plain why.” Bill inhaled, held the smoke in her mouth, then exhaled slowly. “But then, our nursery speak code is not ideal for clarity. Thank goodness I’m here now. No matter. We can take advantage of the fact you already know Frobisher. Revive your friendship with him and then you’ll be able to get close and find out what he’s doing here.”
“Why is Justin under surveillance?” Simon asked. “What’s he suspected of doing?”
“Spying, of course.” Bill dropped her cigarette butt and stubbed it out with her toe. “We believe he’s passing secrets to Moscow.”
“The Russians?” Simon shook his head. “I can’t believe that. At university Justin was very outspoken about his opposition to the Bolsheviks.”
“People can change, Simon.” Bill lit another cigarette. She patted him on the shoulder. “It was a long time ago. And now’s your chance to find out. You can get to know him again when he arrives. Maybe it will set your mind at rest.”
Simon was about to explain why it was a terrible idea. For a start he was offended she had asked him to exploit his once close relationship with Justin Frobisher. In addition, he was certain the reunion would be fraught with difficulties. Their parting over twelve years ago had been acrimonious and Justin would not be pleased to see him. Even after all this time Simon doubted the rift between them would heal.
But before he could say anything, a large black car pulled up alongside them. The car had two Nazi pennants on the wings. The rear door opened and a man wearing a heavy black coat, a homburg hat, and a pair of wire-framed spectacles stepped out.
“Herr Sampson?” the man asked. “Would you please come with us? There are some questions we need to ask you.”
“Where are you taking me?” Simon asked.
“Nowhere special.” The man gestured to the open door. “I would like a private conversation.” He looked at Bill. “Away from prying ears.”
“Whatever you have to say can be said in front of Fräulein Nightingale,” Simon responded.
The driver’s door opened and a burly looking man got out. He turned to face Simon and folded his arms.
“You’d better go with them,” Bill whispered in Simon’s ear. She patted his arm reassuringly. “Don’t worry. If you’re gone more than fifty minutes I’ll send in the cavalry.”
Bill pointed her cigarette at the man with the wire-framed spectacles. “Just make sure you bring him back in time for tea. Five o’clock on the dot. Or Nanny Nightingale will be having words with the British Embassy about you and your little friend here.”
Simon climbed into the back of the car.COLLAPSE
Antony Avina on Author Antony Avina's Blog wrote:
Dawson builds a solid historical background as Simon Sampson relocates to 1933 Berlin, obstensibly as a BBC foreign correspondent, in the second book of the series. This is the Berlin of Christopher Isherwood (who briefly appears) as well as Hitler's early days as German Chancellor. It was a time when people could still think "No. I don't think we've got anything to worry about. It's the communists they're after. And the Jews of course." And the stirrings of fascism were considered as "little more than a manifestation of patriotism."
Simon, as an agent of British intelligence services and a closeted gay man, has a unique set of qualifications. "When one spends most of one's waking hours watching how one presents oneself to the rest of the world, it becomes ludicrously easy to keep other secrets as well."
And through his relationships and acquaintance with several richly developed secondary characters (both real and fictional), Simon finds himself investigating the possibility of Germany's covert rearmament, if his first love Justin, who is now a MP, may be a communist spy, and if the records of the renowned Sexual Institute in Berlin can be freed from the reach of the Nazi party.
Dawson's skillful blending of actual historic events makes the espionage and intrigue especially enaging, and from a current standpoint, terrifying. Anyone who loves history knows the old adage “Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it” (which Edmund Burke, George Santayana or Winston Churchill may have first said), and one cannot help but be aware that there are clear parallels to current developments in our nation and world.
My only niggle about this book is the enigmatic personality of Bill, Simon's fellow spy and former BBC head of libraries. Bill is confounding, abrasive and a tough nut to crack (and appreciate.) 5 stars for A Death in Berlin and I anxiously wait the next book in the series!
This was such a well-developed and engaging historical fiction meets mystery thriller. The atmosphere and intrigue the author was able to infuse into the story really elevated the historical time period the narrative took place in, and the gripping story kept me on the edge of my seat as the author’s balance of fast-paced action and slow-build character growth kept the novel moving at an even pace. The LGBTQ aspect of the narrative and the character growth felt refreshingly natural and insightful, as it played into the history itself quite well.
The rich character dynamics and the unique setting are what really made this story stand out. The chaos and sadness that became such a part of everyday life at the beginning of the Nazi occupation were felt strongly in this novel. The harmonious way the author was able to weave these emotions and facts from our world’s history into the actions and experiences of this cast of characters made this novel so gripping. It allowed the mystery itself felt elevated as the narrative dipped into the espionage spy genre with ease.
Entertaining, thought-provoking, and uniquely pertinent to many of the recurring struggles so many around the world face today, author David C. Dawson’s “A Death in Berlin” is a must-read historical fiction meets suspense thriller and a great addition to The Simon Sampson Mysteries series. With the adrenaline rush and mind-bending twists and turns, this narrative will resonate with readers who enjoy an almost pulpy noir-style storytelling with an LGBTQ-driven cast of characters and a heavy dose of historical research and accuracy. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!