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Book review: “The Berlin Ending: A Novel of Discovery” by E. Howard Hunt

As spy novels go, “The Berlin Ending” by E. Howard Hunt, published 38 years ago, is okay.

For readers looking for an addictive page-turner, it will probably be on the slow side. Hunt, who died in 2007, had actually been in the CIA and knew what he was talking about. But the verisimilitude that this brings to his story seems to make the book a bit clunky.

For readers looking for literature along the lines of John LeCarre, this novel will be unsatisfying. Characters are flat. Motivations, weak. Descriptions, clichéd.

“The Berlin Ending” is a competent work, even so. Yet, I didn’t read it so much for itself — although I enjoy a good spy yarn — but because Hunt was a key figure in the June 17, 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building.

It was the attempts of the Richard Nixon White House to cover up the administration’s connection to Hunt and the burglars that led to the ruination of Nixon and so many of the men around him.

That amazing fall from national grace, a fit subject for a Shakespeare, was treated well if superficially in the recently published novel “Watergate” by Thomas Mallon. Hunt, who wrote espionage tales as a side job, is one of Mallon’s characters, and, during the novel, the ex-CIA man, while dealing with prosecutors and later awaiting prison, is working on his latest book “The Berlin Ending.”

While reading “Watergate,” I got curious about “The Berlin Ending” so I tracked down a copy.

It’s the story of Neal Thorpe, a former CIA operative and now somewhat bored architect, who stumbles into the midst of an international Communist conspiracy in which Soviet agents have risen to important posts in the West German government, French journalism, Vatican decision-making and American finance.

Of course, young women cross Thorpe’s path, but, except for a few chaste kisses, there’s no hint of sex.

That’s one of the things that give “The Berlin Ending” its air of innocence. Another is its treatment of the CIA.

The agency and its people come off as benign in the novel. Thorpe ends up working with a semi-retired top official outside of organizational channels. But, when he’s in a bind midway through the book, he goes to the head CIA agent at an American embassy, and, if that agent is suspicious of this guy who has shown up on his doorstep, he’s not portrayed as evil or betraying. He’s just doing his job.

This innocent tone, like the book itself, is ironic on many levels.

The book i’s subtitled “A Novel of Discovery,” and, of course, it was the discovery of the Watergate burglary that sparked the Watergate scandal.

At one point, Thorpe gives bad information to a deceitful Russian agent, and thinks to himself, “One lie begets, as it deserves, another.” Of course, it was the lying in an attempt at a cover-up that brought the Nixon White House down in a shambles.

(Hunt reportedly had already started writing “The Berlin Ending” when the break-in was discovered. I wonder if he wrote that sentence about lying before, or if this was a hard-won insight that he learned while watching the administration’s lies play out in Congress and the courts.)

What’s most ironic is that this novel’s gentle treatment of the CIA and American government in general — its seeming naiveté. In a spy novel written today, the reader expects U.S. agencies to be tainted by betrayal, cruelty, illegality and abuse of power.

Not in Hunt’s world — his fictional world, at least. For him, Americans are good. Bad stuff is what the Soviets do.

“The Berlin Ending” was published in 1973. That was before most of the revelations of the CIA’s worst skullduggery, such as spying on U.S. citizens and assassinating foreign leaders, were revealed. So Hunt’s publisher and his readers had a different view of the agency.

But it wasn’t just those revelations about the CIA that soured the way Americans view their government. An even greater reason was Watergate.

“The Berlin Ending” seems so innocent because it was written at a moment in history before the impact of Watergate on the national psyche had revealed itself.

In other words, the man deeply involved in the Watergate crime was writing as if such actions could never be done by an American government.

That’s ironic.

Patrick T. Reardon

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