Book Review: Hammer to Fall by John Lawton

Hammer to Fall

John Lawton

Joe Wilderness series

March 10, 2020

The third Joe Wilderness spy thriller from John Lawton, set in the swinging sixties, takes rogue MI6 Agent Joe Wilderness from Finland to Prague on a vodka-soaked adventure.

What happens to spies after peace treaties are signed? According to Hammer to Fall, they simply keep on keeping on. Books about spy-craft (fiction and non-fiction) reveal spies have more affinity with their counterparts across the ideological divide than with their masters in the sterile corridors of power. 

Joe “Wilderness” Holderness has a well-earned reputation for going rogue, particularly when he’s bored. We catch a glimpse of him in East Berlin, in the summer of 1948, “trading coffee, butter and anything else the Russians had on their shopping list.” Through the prism of Wilderness’s black market activities, clues are dropped about his nature and future. Wilderness is not your standard Kim Philby-like, Oxbridge spy; “raised by thieves and whores back in London’s East End, he had come to regard honesty as aberrant.” Lying is second nature to Wilderness, as it would be to any “good Schieber.” It’s hard to exactly translate Schieber into English but a few synonyms are pusher, dealer, racketeer, gangster. You get the drift. In Wilderness’s world, “You lied and you were lied to.”

His “Elsa” is Nell Burkhardt, a woman so honorable that although Wilderness can supply her with delicious black-market delicacies, she refuses to prepare anything beyond the fare of ordinary Berliners. Nell is the one-that-got-away—surprising Wilderness when she walks out on him. 

Even more of a surprise was that he would not set eyes on her again for fifteen years, that the 1950s would roll into the 1960s without a glimpse of her.

Years later, a married man and father of twins, a whiff of L’aimant by Coty, Nell’s signature scent, transports Wilderness to an unforgettable time.

Wilderness mucks up what should have been a pro forma transfer of spies on the Glienicke Bridge. He returns to London town to face the music. No one in Whitehall believes his explanation so his father-in-law/boss arranges a new assignment in Finland, reporting to Head of Station, Burton, J. The unspoken reason for Wilderness’s exile transfer is that MI6 doesn’t want him to answer any more questions from disapproving politicians. 

“What’s past is prologue” is an unspoken theme of Hammer to Fall. Fifteen years after Nell gave him his marching orders, Wilderness makes a quick detour to Berlin, on his way to Finland.

Memory was a flood he could not fold. So he accepted it. Every time he went back to Grünetümmlerstraße he knew he would be drenched by wave and wave of memories, mostly of Nell Burkhardt.

Nell is long gone but their friend Erno Schreiber, a talented document forger, tells Wilderness that Nell is quite a powerhouse now. Wilderness is taken aback to hear she’s destined for Bonn; she was always a Berliner to her core.

Helsinki is much as Wilderness remembers, a city grounded in the past, with cobblestones and trams: “He’d never found much to like or dislike about the place. Hardly a recommendation.” Given his new identity as Michael Young, Second Secretary/cultural attaché, Wilderness anticipates “doing nothing, saying nothing.” Of course he’s wrong. He goes to the chancery and asks a “woman in her late forties” if he can see the boss. After a long while, she ushers him into an empty room, saying “Mr. Burton will see you now.”

“Do sit down, Flight Sergeant Holderness. You’re only Michael Young when I’m through with you.”


Burton . . . Burton . . . Burton, J. Oh fuck. Jenny Burton from the Bonn Station a couple of years back. The one they called the Brocken Witch. 


“I’m surprised we haven’t met before, but Bonn was never your stamping ground, was it?”


Wilderness sat.


“Berlin,” he said simply.


“And your reputation in Berlin precedes you. In fact, I’m amazed the things you got up to in Berlin last year didn’t sink you. But . . . that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? Alec wants you out of the way.”


Wilderness said nothing. If she was going to prattle on about his reputation, he’d neither defend nor agree.


“Let’s get one thing straight from the start, shall we? You won’t be playing Cowboys and Indians on my turf. You won’t be pulling any stunts like the one you staged at Invalidenstraße. You’re a cultural attaché.”

John Lawton infuses Hammer to Fall with ironic, dispassionate humor, never more so than Wilderness’s cover story. He’s supposed to promote British films by hosting movie nights in tiny villages dotted around the Finnish countryside. His current repertoire is unimpressive, ranging from The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) to Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949): “all marvellous . . . in their way . . . in their time . . .  but this wasn’t their time . . . this was 1966. London was swinging.” In his sturdy beast of a car, referred to as the Mog, Wilderness comes up with a list that includes This Sporting Life, Darling, and A Hard Day’s Night. He considers The Spy Who Came in from the Cold but that’s a bridge too far. He’s quite disappointed when Darling (an Oscar winner) goes “down like a lead balloon.”

“Ya know what I like. A good, smutty comedy. Women with big tits. The odd knob joke. How about a Carry On? Saw a cracker the last time I was in London. Carry on Cabby. Sid James. Do they come any better than Sid James?”

So much for “arty farty stuff.” Wilderness’s nemesis—boredom—kicks in. There’s “nothing to spy on,” so perhaps he should get sloshed. Momo, a new acquaintance, tells him to sit down.

Then he splashed something as transparent as Wilderness’s cover into the glasses and handed them out. Pastorius got the plastic cup. 

“Bottoms up.”

Bruce spoke first. “This is good stuff. Not sure we’ve ever landed better.”

“Vodka?” said Wilderness.

“That’d be one name for it, but it’s got dozens. Kilju . . . pontikku . . . ponantza . . . tuliliemi . . .”



So what does Wilderness decide to do? It’s along the lines of selling snow to the Eskimos. He decides to smuggle “vodka across the rather porous border into the USSR.” A couple of successful runs later, “his old KGB pal Kostya” shows up. This is a good place to leave Wilderness but suffice to say, he won’t be in the Finnish wilderness for long—MI6 back in London tells him a “critical component in the casing of the atomic bomb” is being mined in the area. Wilderness is a lightning rod for trouble and danger—and his sardonic, deadpan approach to life’s vicissitudes adds to the pleasure of reading Hammer to Fall.

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