Leonard Marnham, an engineer employed by the British post office, has lived an extraordinarily sheltered life when he arrives in 1950s Berlin to work on a collaborative project between the British and Americans to tap into Soviet phone lines. His new job and colleagues, and living on his own for the first time, open him up to a wide variety of new tastes and experiences. As befits the Cold War setting,both his work and personal lives also consist of complex webs of secrecy, fear, mistrust, and paranoia. A British scientist even convinces him to try his hand at spying on their American partners. The greatest threat to his exciting new life, however, comes not from his clumsy attempts at espionage but from his German girlfriend Maria's stalker-ish ex-husband, Otto. In one particularly violent confrontation between the three, Leonard and Maria kill Otto, then find themselves working desperately to cover up his death. The aftereffects of the killing are surprisingly far-reaching and expose more than one kind of betrayal.
The book contains a famously violent and graphic description of the murder—one so grisly that McEwan has said he wishes he hadn't included it, feeling that it has put off many of the book's potential readers. If they have the stomach for it, however, readers will find this is a richly detailed, fascinating, and atmospheric depiction of Leonard's spectacular loss of innocence. Readers may also find surprising parallels between this novel and Sarah Waters's recent bestseller, The Paying Guests.