Berlin, 1946: the second winter after the war's end. The city is in ruins, and suffering from its split occupation, a near-total absence of food, and an awful, all-pervading cold – the ground too hard to dig a grave, the air chill enough to freeze blood, warm from a fresh corpse, in seconds.
This is the setting of Dan Vyleta's debut novel, a gripping espionage thriller very much in the uncertain, paranoid vein of The Third Man. Vyleta's Harry Lime is Colonel Fosko, an obese and manipulative Brit desperate to track down a roll of microfilm that should have been in the possession of a German midget he has caught in a honey-trap and had killed. When the midget turns up in the flat of Jean Pavel Richter, folded up dead in a suitcase, the microfilm is still sewn into the lining of his Russian greatcoat.
From there it will set the book's characters – the doomed American who brought it, the beautiful whore upstairs, and Pavel himself – on a terrible collision course with Fosko and his Russian counterparts. If Fosko is a straightforward study of immorality, Pavel is something else: an American spy of ambiguous motives and intentions. When we first meet him he is holed up in a flat with kidney disease and an unusual nurse in the guise of Anders, an urchin from a street gang. He finds Pavel penicillin on the black market, and Pavel reads him Dickens in return.
This enigmatic relationship is just one of the holes at the centre of this compelling novel. It keeps you hooked on its mysteries by rationing the truth more severely than its characters' coffee. The story, once untangled, is hardly complicated, but Vyleta has chosen as his narrator someone not so much unreliable as neurotically cautious.
This is Fosko's aide, Peterson, who acts as Pavel's interrogator when he falls into the colonel's hands, only to become obsessed with his prisoner. "I spent hours and days eye to eye with Pavel," he says. "Just us in the dark, some bars between us and the scuttle of roaches. I know Pavel like the back of my hand. And yet, time and again, I was surprised by him".
Vyleta, the son of Czech refugees to Germany, is writing in English as his second language, but his plain style is welcome in a book so full of suspicion and subterfuge. Some readers of literary fiction treat thrillers as a guilty pleasure. Pavel & I, by contrast, is an entirely guilt-free treat.