Luke McCallin’s debut novel The Man From Berlin offers a unique take on the World War II conflict – moving away from the Holocaust, D-Day landings and British Home Front and turning to murderous events in Sarajevo, Bosnia. It follows military Intelligence officer, Captain Gregor Reinhardt, as he investigates the brutal murders of a beautiful socialite and a German officer, threading a careful route through a minefield of political, military and personal agendas.
Published by No Exit, The Man From Berlin has drawn comparison with Philip Kerr, Dan Fesperman, CJ Sansom and Martin Cruz Smith. The first of a planned series about Reinhardt, it’s out now as a paperback, or ready to download to your Device from here.
Luke’s work is imbued with his experience working for the UN as a humanitarian. He’s been incredibly generous with his answers for The Intel. He talks about how Reinhardt walked into his dreams, about the evolution of The Man From Berlin, his writing process and his best-ever moment between the posts…
Tell us about Gregor Reinhardt…
Gregor Reinhardt is a German intelligence officer, a former Berlin detective chased out of the police by the Nazis. When you first find him in The Man From Berlin, he is haunted by what he has seen, tortured by recurring nightmares, wearing the uniform of an army he despises, and has ever fewer reasons to live.
He is a son, a soldier, a husband, a father, a friend, a policeman, a patriot… He is all of those things, and not defined by one of them more than another. He is a man formed by his times. He is a man much like any other. Sometimes strong, sometimes weak. Sometimes able to do the right thing, and sometimes too scared to. Sometimes shaped by events, sometimes able to shape them to him. Sometimes introspective to the point of paralysis, but with the intelligence to see past the veil of illusion and propaganda that has been pulled across his time, and thus perfectly aware of how his inactivity and fear make him complicit in the spiral of chaos around him.
Someone once said they would cross the road to talk to Henry V, or King Lear, but they wouldn’t cross the room to talk to Hamlet. I like to think Reinhardt’s a bit like that. He’s Hamlet. He feels his times very keenly. He feels his own inadequacies more keenly still. What I wanted to do in creating and writing Reinhardt was to find a way to look at a tempestuous and tendentious period of history, to create a character and make people think that he could be you. An ordinary man in extraordinary times, still trying to behave and believe in what makes sense, but so painfully aware of his own fears and limitations, and still knowing what is right and what is wrong. If you give someone like that an opportunity to do something, be someone, what would he do? What would you do…?
So, if you crossed that proverbial room — maybe at a reception or a cocktail party — if you got him to loosen up and talk to you, if he trusted you enough, he’d have quite a bit to say about himself, and his times. I think you would find him interesting. Somewhat taciturn, with a dry sense of humour and very self-deprecating, and I think you would find yourself opening up to him in turn.
Why do we find compromised heroes so compelling?
I suppose at its simplest, a compromised hero is someone who is not where they would otherwise want to be. As readers, we want someone to root for: someone who has something to lose. As an author, I want my character to move, and grow, but if we take ourselves as examples, our growth and development as people — as human beings — is not linear. But what works, or even doesn’t work, in life does not always work on the page. You have to come up with a character and a journey that lets you start at one point, and finish at another, and that allows you to show how the character has grown and changed.
In Reinhardt’s case, he is an officer in an army he detests, and he is a man who has allowed his fear to overcome his sense of wrong and right. He is compromised by his inaction, and by his participation — however unwilling — in the war, but however low he feels or thinks he is, there is always lower to go. He knows that, so the watchwords to Reinhardt’s character and story are probably ‘change’ and ‘consequence.’ Reinhardt’s story is a thread woven into a tapestry of a continent in upheaval. He goes through those times initially just trying to keep his head above water and survive, but he changes. It’s impossible not to. I think you have to make people interested in those changes, interested in the consequences of those changes, and you have to make people believe Reinhardt has something to bring to the table, so to say. You need to make people care about him, and to survive is not enough.
Where did the inspiration for The Man From Berlin come from?
It may sound clichéd, but Gregor Reinhardt walked into my dreams one night, and then sat quietly to one side for months and years, not saying much, not doing much, just waiting for me to find the time and the courage to start writing his story.
I was a political advisor to the United Nations mission in Bosnia when Reinhardt appeared. I worked with people from all walks of Bosnian life. With policemen and judges and lawyers, with mayors and town councilors, with priests and imams, with refugees and people still living in ruins, with war criminals and those who survived them, with those who had lived the war and those who fled from it, with women holding families together, and men who had fallen adrift of life. I began to build up a collage in my mind. I kept wondering, asking myself, what would I have done in their place, and I began weaving that human and historical tapestry, which is one of the most complex and fascinating you can imagine, into a story, and then into a book, albeit into another time, that of the Second World War, and the book had at its heart a man on the edge of despair at what his life had become, and his name was Gregor Reinhardt.
You’ve described the city of Sarajevo as an iconic character in the book – what is it about the city that made you want to write about it?
Setting Reinhardt’s story in the Balkans was actually a late decision. The novels were originally to be set in Berlin, a city I’ve never visited and about which I know practically nothing. I spent years trying to research it, until I had something of a road to Damascus moment and Sarajevo offered itself up as a location instead.
Immediately, so many things fell into place. The story made more sense, I could say so much more about the themes I wanted to develop, and describe a city and people I have deep, deep affection for. I could entice readers with the promise of adventure in the Balkans — a part of the world known to most as a by-word for intrigue, or treachery — so it was a chance to show readers another side of that region. It was also to make readers more keenly interested in the characters. They’d have to be tough or resourceful to survive the Balkans, right?!
It was also because I think that with mysteries, time and place are almost characters in and of themselves. I spent six years working in Bosnia, and you can’t live there or in Sarajevo for long without it seeping into you. As much as it’s an overused analogy, Bosnia and Sarajevo really are historical and cultural crossroads, and are so contested. They defy any simple explanation, just like the finest puzzle or book or question. No matter the need to reduce and simplify them, there’s no one way to read or play them, and a place and time like that gives you so many options as an author: for drama, action, reflection; for asking big questions and trying out the answers to them.
What’s next for Reinhardt?
My original conception of Reinhardt’s stories was an initial set of three stories, a trilogy, each novel focusing on a particular theme (and I’m pretty sure my (un)conscious choice of a trilogy was influenced by all the fantasy novels I read!) The Man From Berlin was about redemption. The Pale House was about resistance. The third novel, which I’m writing now, will be about reconciliation. That novel will complete the initial Reinhardt trilogy. The fourth novel will be set in Reinhardt’s past, during the First World War, and will tell the story of an investigation in the trenches. I’ve always wanted to write a WWI novel, and I think Reinhardt will let me say some of the things I’ve always wanted to say about it.
I know there are at least half a dozen stories, including the two I’ve written so far, that contain specific things I want to say about Reinhardt the character, and his times and places. Places are very important to me. Like I said, they’re characters in their own right. That comes from my background, growing up in Africa, and my work with the UN. I’m fascinated by places, what they can do to you… I’ve ideas for novels in pre-WWII Paris, in Marseille, in Berlin, and even an idea for a Reinhardt novel in Panama!
You’ve traveled widely in your life – how do you think that has influenced your writing?
More than the travelling, it’s living and working in many places. I was born in Oxford to parents that had a humanitarian vocation. We moved to Africa when I was five. My father worked for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and my mother did work with child soldiers. That upbringing was inspirational, and engendered in me a desire to do something similar. I’ve worked for a range of UN organisations around the world, and now work for the UN based in Geneva. All the places I’ve lived and worked — in Africa, in Russia, in Haiti, in Pakistan, in the Balkans, especially — taught me something, or I saw something, or felt something. About what happens to people — ordinary people — put in extraordinary situations.
I’ve seen a lot of human suffering and violence, but also a lot of human dignity and kindness, and we can too easily forget about the latter when faced with the former. I feel compelled — inspired, if you like — to give voice to those impressions, feelings and observations. That’s not to say my writing’s about those places, although my first two books were set in WWII Sarajevo, but those experiences taught me a lot about how people can act in such situations. There is so much dignity and so much anguish in the human situation when confronted with war or natural disaster. No one really asks to become a war criminal, or to get conscripted, or deny other humans their basic human rights, or to try and raise a family in a refugee camp, but it happens. And at the same time, as we see right now in Ukraine, it does not take much for people to move so far so fast from the paths their lives were taking: for postmen, for bakers, for bank clerks, for miners to become gunmen, to become warlords, for them to turn on their neighbours of decades and believe the worst of them, to expect the worse of them, and so to mete out the worst before it befalls them.
What does it take for a man to turn on his neighbour? What does it take for another man to stand up for someone? Trying to understand the human motivations or conditions in all that, that’s what inspires me to write. I’ve found that no amount of work that we, as humanitarian workers, can ever really do will suffice to overcome those impulses. You are always going to be frustrated in what you achieve, to only get halfway to where you want to be, and often — far too often — the guilty get away with it. I think with my writing I’m trying to find some way of coming to terms with that. I don’t write about white knights on white horses — Gregor Reinhardt is certainly not one of those — but I try to ask those questions that seem to haunt me, and I try to find answers, and a sense of closure.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
If only I had one! I have a full time job and a family so my writing time often ends up being done in the dogwatches. Curtailed, as Dr Maturin said in one of the O’Brien books! I try to do a bit each day, if only an hour, and it’s mostly in the evenings, but I recently started a new job with a lot more responsibilities. I’m finishing each day a lot more mentally fatigued than I used to, so the energy to write is not quite there even if the time is.
I get quite a bit done at weekends, usually when I’ve set up all the props. That would be black tea, by the litre, and some music! I like quiet, but only relative. I work to music a lot. I have a particular soft spot for West African music, especially music from Mali. I used to work in Mali and it’s a musical goldmine, a gift that keeps on giving!
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
Harper Lee, Erich Maria Remarque, Vasily Grossman, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Isaac Babel were great influences who found and rendered the human amidst tumultuous backdrops. Cormac McCarthy and Peter Mathiessen are extraordinary modern American writers, with the first volume in the latter’s Shadow Country trilogy a master class in story-telling from multiple viewpoints, replete with ambiguity and with the ‘truth’ held tantalisingly just out of reach, just like real life. Mathiessen is also a writer who exposes the truth of a place, and I admire the way he is able to show many of the realities beneath the American dream, and put in perspective — and to sometimes hold dearer as a result — all that has been built in that country.
I admire Sebastian Barry for the lyricism of his writing, such that I’m sure he has to be the reincarnation of an Irish bard! Rosemary Sutcliffe’s books (she always said she wrote for children aged eight to eighty!) about Roman Britain were magical, almost fairy tales, and her descriptions of Britain’s beauty and wildness were and are inspiring. Hilary Mantel, Patrick O’Brien and Alexander Fullerton I love for the sheer depth of their historical research and, particularly for O’Brien, the sheer beauty of his writing and the creation, in Aubrey and Maturin, of one of the best fictional double-acts ever.
Growing up, it was science fiction and fantasy I read most. Tolkien, CS Lewis, and Stephen Donaldson, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, then Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Scott Lynch and R. Scott Bakker. I love all the world-building that goes into science fiction and fantasy, the intricacy of it. As much as I read a lot of history and current affairs, I don’t have a particular favourite writer of it — I tend to focus on periods or themes, more than authors — but AJP Taylor was, and remains, immensely readable. Joe Sacco’s graphic novels about Palestine, Goražde, and WWI are works of art as well as works of political analysis and conscience. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel changed the way I look at the world, as did Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Hew Strachan’s work on the First World War is magisterial. The Washing of the Spears and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are classics that look at different instances of the imperial experience. The Isles is the single best book I know about Britain.
I’m reading a lot of crime, espionage and mystery, partly to familiarise myself as this was never the genre I thought I would write in! There are the giants like Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Len Deighton and John Le Carré. Then the contemporary authors I’ve discovered are Philip Kerr (of course!), William Ryan, Alan Furst, and David Downing. Seeing as I’m fascinated by what places and times can do to you, I especially like James McClure’s Kramer and Zondi series about a pair of detectives in apartheid South Africa.
Give me some advice about writing…
There’s a suitably acerbic anecdote from Ernest Hemingway that fits this question. Once asked what the best training for an aspiring writer would be, he replied: “Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.”
Write, and don’t be afraid to write badly, or with difficulty because, as someone once told me, there are no good writers, there are only good re-writers. Just write. Don’t wait for the perfect idea, or the most ingenious plot. Don’t be afraid to show what you’ve done, and show it widely. Writing is a lonely business, so it’s important that you as a writer get out and about, and that you show your work to people, as many people as you can. You want criticism, and you want that exposure of yourself and your work. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are all kinds of resources out there: workshops, writers’ groups, online courses and coaches, some of them right in your neighbourhood. Make friends with writers so that you have a community. I benefitted enormously from an online coach, who taught a great course on plot development.
What else…? Read outside your genre and comfort zone, and read widely and voraciously because you’ll never know what you might find, and where you’ll find it. Observe what’s going on around you. When you’re out and about, watch people. Watch them having conversations, watch them walking down the street, eating, laughing. Watch the sky, watch the play of light on water or glass, watch the street’s reflection wash over the yellow chassis of a New York taxi. Watch how water flows, what it flows around, how it flows around.
Take time to plan, but remember there’s a fine line between planning, and planning as prevarication. I used to just dive in and write, but what I’d end up with were lots of disconnected scenes and ideas. Sometimes I’d be able to join them up, often not. Planning — research, plotting, a synopsis, knowing the ending before you begin — can really help.
You play in goal for the UN football team – what’s the best save you ever made?
What a great question! There are so many great saves I made (tongue firmly in cheek), how to chose one… Well, there was one I’m particularly proud of because it was, I think, a sort of amalgam of all the goalkeeper’s arts — anticipation, observation, positioning, technique, reflexes and a spot of bravery. We were playing in a semi-final, and we needed a win. About five minutes from the end, we were leading 3-2, and the other teams two forwards made a clean break through into our half. There were no defenders with them, just me. The striker with the ball had already scored twice, so he was on a hat trick. I figured he’d want that third goal for himself more than for the team, so I made it ‘easy’ for him, and gave him plenty of space away from the other striker, who was screaming for the ball. Sure enough, the one with the ball tried to go round me, but I managed to close him down and went down at his feet, got a hand to the ball and knocked it away, and then got up for the rebound and saved that one too!