Nightfall Berlin, by Jack Grimwood


Not that Grimwood needs my good words after this weekend’s note in The Times from Marcel Berlins. I’d link to it but, paywall. And I regret to say that I’ll be a bit vague, because I listened to the audio version and so can’t refer back to the actual text. The audio version was so good, it made me want to drive to the Leicester office for more listening time en route. Of course, once I got to Leicester I immediately wanted to come home again, but you can’t have everything.

Nightfall Berlin is the second novel to feature Major Tom Fox, following his first outing in Moskva a couple of years back. I loved Moskva to the extent that I bought copies as gifts for a couple of people. It’s a proper, old school, Cold War thriller, introducing Fox as a flawed lead with plenty of his own ghosts to be dealing with while he’s trying to find the missing 15 year old daughter of the British Ambassador. I wasn’t even all that interested the Cold War period, and now I’m finding it fascinating.

At least in Moskva, Fox was on official business. In Nightfall Berlin, he’s on the wrong side of the Berlin wall without any papers or allies, on the run because suspected of murder. He was sent to bring back a horrible old man who defected some years back and now wants to come home and die in peace. Or something like that – the letter the old git sends to The Times contains a deliberately mistaken classical reference linking to an old case, and the game is afoot when the man is found murdered in his flat.

The Stasi, the KGB and his own people are all after Fox at one time or another. They all want the memoirs the old man was writing and they’re willing to beat the truth out of Fox when he denies having them. Repeatedly.  There are twists, turns, failed attempts to escape back to West Berlin, shootings, meetings in the zoo, conspiracies, and cover ups. While that could sound like box ticking, that’s not at all how it reads. Comparisons with Le Carre are inevitable, and there’s a nice nod when Fox’s former handler hands him a copy of the latest Le Carre novel, intended for the KGB. The copy is returned with a book report.

Grimwood is great at representing the paranoia and bleakness of East Berlin, and the ever shifting relationships between the different sides as they carry out the behind-the-scenes dirty work that lets official policy continue. Fox isn’t being paranoid when he says ‘Trust no one’, nor even when it’s ‘There’s no one to trust’. Allegiances seem to shift on a dime, even Fox worries that the KGB uniform he ends up in at one point suits him surprisingly well.

My favourite threat (no spoilers as to circumstances): ‘… I’ll have you killed. I won’t even bother to do it myself, I’ll just look at the photographs.’ Boom.

In which I distill my views on social media

I spent today at a digital content conference that focused primarily on social media. It got off to a rocky start: ‘Use Google Analytics!’ ‘You don’t say?’, which had me eyeing the door and wondering how I’d last the day. But, after that, there were some nuggets of wisdom, even if it did feel like an awful lot of panning to find them.

The words communication, conversation, engagement came up over and over. Walking back to the train, I was trying to sum up the day to myself, and I think what it all boils down to is ‘only connect’.

Everyone should just read EM Forster.

Whither publishing?

So I was idly browsing LinkedIn, as you do when you’ve had one of those weeks. Or, in my case, several of those weeks. By this stage in life, I’m quite prepared to accept that, when it comes to working for a living, the problem is with me, not them. I don’t like work; but then again, as a former colleague shrewdly pointed out to me, that’s why it’s called ‘work’, and also why no one gets up in the morning and bounces cheerily out of the house saying ‘I’m off to fun!’

Anyway, because I have absolutely no idea of what I might want to do instead of what I currently do, and because I’m sick of banging my own thoughts again the solid wall of my own ignorance, I’ve started browsing sideways on LinkedIn. I do this by simply clicking on a job that looks vaguely possible, then clicking on the ‘other jobs like this’ link. In a few clicks, that can get me to an interesting content/technology intersection, but away from publishing as we know it, Jim.

What I noticed is that everyone traffics in content these days. Of course they do, because everyone has a website and websites host content . No matter who the company is, or whether the website is internally or externally facing, I can guarantee you that the content pretty much consists of some combination of words and images. There might be multi-media and social networking stuff too,  it might be user-generated or editorially curated, but the fundamentals are the same.

What that means is that a whole slew of companies is edging its way into being content creators, curators and distributors, whether they, not to mention the publishing industry, recognise it or not. Content is not spontaneously created out of the ether and it does not miraculously reveal itself online. Thus that same slew of companies is installing content management systems and steadily building up a body of staff with primarily digital publishing skills to generate and deploy content.

So what happens when, say, Sainsbury’s, realises it has all this ability plus a ready-made distribution channel and a well recognised brand? Taking e-books out of the equation for the moment (I know, I’m a heretic, so burn me. No, wait. Bite me.), why wouldn’t they start publishing beyond their magazine? They could go with born digital content and start a bit of brand extension in a whole raft of ways.  This is the dirty secret of publishing, after all: when you really break it down, anyone can do it. And they are already are.

Update: Today I was in Waitrose. In key POS position, a Christmas stocking-filler book; publisher, Waitrose. I rest my case.