The Only Winning Move
Sea Lion Press
The Cold War, War Never Changes – to paraphrase slightly, that’s the overarching theme at the core of The Only Winning Move by Max Johansson. What if the Cold War hadn’t actually ended in the last decade of the 20th Century, and was in fact still going strong? What if the Berlin Wall hadn’t fallen, and was instead still intact, still dividing Berlin – but now equipped with the latest 21st Century surveillance and counter-espionage technology? As we begin The Only Winning Move, the year is 2015: the German Democratic Republic still exists in East Berlin, and East Germany; the Soviet Union is preparing to celebrate 100 years of revolution; and an American diplomatic attaché has just washed up on the shore of the Teltow Canal.
None of these things should matter to Herr Schneider, the title’s protagonist. All he wants to do is drink in the bar below his flat and try and enjoy his retirement, ignoring the looming mass of the section of the Wall that can be seen from his flat window. During a drinking session in the bar, he meets a woman, a stranger he hasn’t seen before; after a few drinks, they retire to her place, but on the way there he feels strangely tired. He wakes up in a dimly-lit basement, chained to a chair; his captor is the mysterious woman, who knows all about the career he recently retired from – being a master document forger. She needs him to forge a certain document for her to use, one that officially doesn’t exist in the records of the GDR; one that can allow the bearer to bypass all sorts of security checkpoints; until he’s done that, and helped with a few other errands she needs help with, then unfortunately he isn’t going anywhere.
It’s a fantastic start to any story, particularly one with such an intriguing backdrop to it, and the author handles it with aplomb, slickly moving from the bar to the basement without any superfluous writing. The plot doesn’t let up from there, as the point of view alternates between Schneider, stuck in a basement desperately trying to figure out the motivations of the woman who kidnapped him, and the agent herself, who infiltrates Eastern Germany for reasons unknown. There are enough twists and turns to suit even the most jaded of readers, including some tense action scenes, and in the latter half of the story we get some fascinating interplay between Schneider and the agent which goes some way to allowing the reader to understand her motivation, and eventually the potentially devastating consequences of the plan that she is setting in motion.
I also enjoyed the wider backdrop to The Only Winning Move, that of the Cold War rumbling on into the early 21st Century. It’s a fascinating idea, and while it isn’t the focus of the story, the author does drop enough hints and clues to show the wider effects of its continuation on the world, particularly in Latin America; and I would be quite interested in reading another piece of fiction taking place in the same reality, perhaps touching more on how, and why, the Berlin Wall hadn’t fallen, or the consequences of the planned Soviet mission to Mars.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how well thought out or engaging the plot of a story is, if it isn’t supported by a high quality of writing; I can’t count the number of novels and short-stories I’ve put down because the writing style was poor. Fortunately that isn’t the case here, with the author providing a sharp and focused style of writing with no extraneous detail or meandering asides that meant that, allied with the engaging plot, I had finished within a few hours of starting to read it. In conclusion, The Only Winning Move is a confident, stylish and rewarding debut title from Mr Johansson, and one that deserves to be read by any discriminating reader of the alternate history or spy fiction genres.