BOOK REVIEW: 'Orders from Berlin': Police Procedural Meets Spy Novel in 1940 Great Britain

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Orders from Berlin': Police Procedural Meets Spy Novel in 1940 Great Britain

In "Orders from Berlin" (Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, 309 pages, $25.99) Simon Tolkien takes us back to September 1940 to a London that is being terror bombed day and night by the Luftwaffe in what is a softening up of a country about to suffer the fate of Poland, France, Belgium, Norway and the other countries crushed by the Germans -- or so Hitler hopes. He thinks England and Germany are natural allies and he can't understand why the stubborn Brits keep fighting.


Tolkien? Yes, he's the grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, the Anglo-Saxon scholar who wrote the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit books, and he's a fine writer in his own right, especially when it comes to recreating the sights and sounds of wartime England. And, to all those who savage the U.K. for its bombing of Germany, especially Hamburg and Dresden, I'd like to remind them who started it with Rotterdam, Coventry, and especially London. Are you listening, David Irving?


Winston Churchill maintains the country's morale. In Germany, Adolf Hitler and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo and the SD, the SS's intelligence division, ponder a plan to eliminate Churchill from the equation. Heydrich has a mole in MI6 who could kill Churchill, eliminating the need for an invasion -- code name Sea Lion -- and convince Britain to join forces with Germany to fight the common enemy, the Soviet Union.

Albert Morrison, ex-chief of MI6, the U.K.'s secret service in charge of foreign spying -- James Bond's agency -- is pushed over the banister outside his London apartment. He falls to his death at the feet of his daughter, Ava, but it is too dark for her to see the attacker before he escapes. Two Scotland Yard detectives investigate the crime scene: Inspector Quaid and his junior assistant, Detective Trave. Quaid is convinced that Morrison's death is a simple open-and-shut case involving a family dispute, and that Ava's husband, Dr. Bertram Brive, pushed the well-to-do Morrison over the bannister to get access to an inheritance that would pay his debts.


Simon Tolkien
Simon Tolkien

In a case of two different agency operatives who are at odds with each other, Trave is not so sure that the good doctor is the culprit: He thinks Quaid is jumping to the wrong conclusions, ignoring a note in the dead man's pocket to points to MI6. Trave discovers that Morrison was visited by Alec Thorn, deputy head of MI6, on the day of his death. Thorn and his subordinate, Charles Seaforth, don't get along, to say the least. Add their attraction to Morrison's daughter Ava Brive, and the plot thickens like a Yorkshire pudding.


In "Orders from Berlin" Tolkien takes us back to the case that started it all for Trave, the hero of his last two critically acclaimed novels.

Tolkien is plowing ground tilled by such masters as Jack Higgins, Alan Furst and one of my favorites, Robert Harris, author of the 1992 alternate history novel "Fatherland" which takes the form of a detective story set in a Britain where Hitler had won the war. But Tolkien's treatment of life in wartime Britain rings true and has a distinctive voice. I found the passages describing the horrors of World War I as witnessed by Seaforth's older brother particularly moving, reminding me of a similar situation in a novel I recently reviewed, "The Absolutist" by John Boyne (link to my review: . In an interview in USA Today (link:, Simon Tolkien said one influence on his thriller writing was Herman Wouk ("The Caine Mutiny") who recreated the period of World War II "beautifully" in "The Winds of War."

About the Author

Simon Tolkien, born 1959, was a successful criminal law barrister in London before moving to California with his wife and two children. Tolkien published his first novel, "Final Witness", in 2002. His other novels are "The Inheritance" and "The King of Diamonds." His website:


Publisher's website:

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