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16 April 2010

Book Review: Voices Under Berlin by T.H.E. Hill

Title: Voices Under Berlin: The Tale Of A Monterey Mary
Author: T.H.E. Hill
Publisher: CreateSpace; 4th edition
Publication Date: January 31, 2008
Paperback: 312 pages
ISBN: 978-1434839732
Genre: Spy Fiction


About the Book:

A spy fiction about the Americans who ran the pre-wall Berlin Spy Tunnel that the CIA used to tap Russian telecommunications cables, and about the Russians whom they were intercepting. The novel is ostensibly set against the backdrop of the Berlin Spy Tunnel (Operation GOLD, covername: PBJOINTLY). The yarn is told from both ends of the tunnel. One end is the story of the Americans who worked the tunnel, and how they fought for a sense of purpose against boredom and the enemy both within and without. This side of the story is told with a pace and a black humor reminiscent of that used by Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and Richard Hooker (M*A*S*H*). The other end of the tunnel is the story of the Russians whose telephone calls the Americans are intercepting. Their end of the tale is told in the unnarrated transcripts of their calls. They are the voices under Berlin. Voices Under Berlin is the proud winner of 5 Book Awards: PODBRAM Best Historical Concept, “Puss Reboots” book blog Top 10 Books for 2009, Hollywood Book Festival, Branson Stars & Flags Book Award and Military Writers’ Society Book of the Month.

My Review:

Voices Under Berlin
takes the reader inside the 9539th T.C.U. during the early days of the Cold War. The reader is exposed to both sides of the Cold War in a manner I personally thought interrupted the flow of the narrative. In Voices Under Berlin, Hill does a good job describing what it is like for the recruits who arrive into the 9539th, especially the three main characters from the 9539th: Kevin, who is a Monterey Mary graduate, proficient in several languages and also the narrator of the American side of the story; Blackie a manual Morse Code Operator, one of the best, and also a fine blackmarketeer and Lieutenant Robert Sherlock, aka "Sheerluck". The 9539th is working to get the CIA's project, the Berlin Tunnel, up and operational during the early days of occupied Germany. The story is about the people that made the Berlin tunnel a reality as well as the interception of communiqués from East Berlin to the USSR. Voices Under Berlin is a spy story of sorts, told with wit, sarcasm and is intended to be a lighter look at a very serious time in history. Hill received numerous awards for his portrayal of Berlin in the 1950s and the secret operations occurring on both sides, yet for me the novel fell short of what I had hoped it would be. Having an extensive background in Soviet Foreign Relations, I was expecting the novel to take a more serious and in-depth historical look at the events taking place, and instead found myself at times bored, reading about sophomoric pranks or wasting time flipping to the front to be certain I was clear about a military acronym being used. The enclosed photographs were of great interest to me as was the few pieces of historical information, however I just could not find a solid rhythm to this novel. For those looking for a non-traditional spy novel with a twist of mystery, dark humour, stab at "military intelligence" and "Mata Haris",Voices Under Berlin may be exactly what you are searching for.

About the Author:

T.H.E. Hill, the author of Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary, served with the U.S. Army Security Agency at Field Station Berlin in the mid-1970s, after a tour at Herzo Base in the late 1960s. He is a three-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute (DLIWC) in Monterey, California, the alumni of which are called “Monterey Marys”. The Army taught him to speak Russian, Polish, and Czech; three tours in Germany taught him to speak German, and his wife taught him to speak Dutch. He has been a writer his entire adult life, but now retired from Federal Service, he writes what he wants, instead of the things that others tasked him to write while he was still working. You can learn more about T.H.E. Hill and his books here.

T.H.E. Hill’s VOICES UNDER BERLIN VIRTUAL BLOG TOUR ‘10 officially began on April 5 and will end on April 30 2010. Follow the tour during the month of April to find out more about this great book and talented author!

I received a complimentary copy of Voices Under Berlin by T.H.E. Hill from Pump Up Your Book Promotion as part of the tour. Receiving a copy in no way reflected my review of aforementioned novel.



Book Dilettante said...

Spy novels are always fun.

Book Dilettante

T.H.E. Hill said...

For "a more serious and in-depth historical look at the events taking place" in the Berlin Spy Tunnel, I would recommend that you consider non-fiction sources, rather than fiction sources, like:
1) "Battleground Berlin," a book on the Intelligence war in Berlin written by a former chief of the CIA Base in Berlin in cooperation with a retired KGB Chief of German operations from that period. It has a whole chapter on the tunnel.
2) "Spies Beneath Berlin" by David Stafford of the University of Edinburgh.
3) The Official CIA history of the tunnel that was prepared in August 1967 and declassified in February 2007. The Declassified "CLANDESTINE SERVICES HISTORY: THE BERLIN TUNNEL OPERATION 1952-1956" is available from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Electronic Reading Room. Just search for "Berlin Tunnel". Must reading for every spy tunnel aficionado.

The historical background for occupied Berlin during the tunnel period is available from a number of sources such as "Berlin Before the Wall" by Hsi-Huey Liang and a series of booklets published by Berlin Command for distribution to newcomers. Those interested in a reprint can find it on as Berlin in Early Cold-War Army Booklets. The booklets contain a wealth of background information on occupied Berlin at the time of the tunnel.

A serious "Literary" with a capital 'L' treatment of the material would fall flat, because the reader's first inclination is to think that I was stretching truth for comic effect. While I did take some liberties with the truth, the fiction of the story isn't as far from the truth as those who have not lived the life described in this novel suspect.

Readers who have first-hand experience with the military generally recognize the "sophomoric pranks" described in "Voices Under Berlin" as the reality of this kind of operation.

Writing at The Blogger News Network, Sgt. Mom says "Never underestimate the creative lengths to which extremely intelligent and bored military personnel will go to amuse themselves, especially when confined to spending hours and hours on duty, in the main just watching for something to happen; elaborate charades to divert (or scare the pants off of) the equally bored East German military, watching the site from a tall guard tower, the briefing book cooked up on a totally imaginary almost-enemy unit supposedly stationed just across the way, or even just loosening an essential screw in someone elses' headset. Some of these japes are ancient, yet ever-renewed by a fresh generation, sent off post-haste on their first duty day for a fifty-foot length of flight line and a bucket of prop-wash. 'Voices Under Berlin' is well worth the time, to a veteran and non-veteran alike, for a glimpse into another world, another war, half a century ago."

Writing in a thread on the Discussion Boards, a soldier currently fighting the S E C R E T war in the mid-east says,: "I thought it was hilarious how some of the SIGINT/linguist jokes and eccentricities have virtually remained unchanged in sixty years, be it linguist vs analyst clashes, clueless LTs, oversensitive OPSEC folks who throw out the 'need to know' card at every single turn, reclassed soldiers deriding 'overeducated' DLIers for not being 'real soldiers,' etc. I can assure you the same situations are being played out in Iraq and Afghanistan as I type this. :-)"

We used to say "you don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps." Being able to laugh at the insane things going on around you was the only way to maintain your own sanity.

Jennifer said...

Mr. Hill,

Thank you for taking time out of you busy schedule to stop by and leave such insightful information not only into your own novel but also where one can look for non-fiction information.