The Innocent (McEwan novel)

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The Innocent
First edition (UK)
Author Ian McEwan
Cover artist Robin Cracknell[1]
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Jonathan Cape
Doubleday (US)
Publication date
Media type Hardcover
Pages 231
ISBN 0-224-02783-2

The Innocent is a 1990 novel by British writer Ian McEwan.


The novel takes place in 1955-56 Berlin at the beginning of the Cold War and centres on the joint CIA/MI6 operation to build a tunnel from the American sector of Berlin into the Russian sector to tap the phone lines of the Soviet High Command. Leonard Marnham is a 25-year-old Englishman who sets up and repairs the tape recorders used in the tunnel. He falls in love with Maria Eckdorf, a 30-year-old divorced German. The story revolves around their relationship and Leonard's role in the operation.


Leonard Marnham is "The Innocent" of the novel, a Post Office engineer who is employed by the Americans to install the signals in the tunnel they are building specifically to tap the Russians. The British and Americans view each other with distrust. Leonard is befriended by Bob Glass, an American obsessed with security.

The British are aware that the Americans are on the verge of a breakthrough with decoding, and are annoyed that they have not been a part of it. MacNamee, a scientist, insists that Leonard act as a spy for them, as he is in with the Americans. Leonard fails dismally in his role as spy.

Ironically, Leonard lives above a rather stuffy character named George Blake, who was the Soviet Agent imprisoned in the 1960s, and who escaped from Wormwood Scrubs. The novel neatly intertwines fictional meetings between the two men, and one of Blake's most notorious betrayals is given a new slant by Leonard's foolhardy act.

At a bar with his new American colleagues he meets a girl called Maria to whom he is 'innocent' due to having never had sex before. They become engaged but after their engagement party Maria's ex-husband Otto, a self-proclaimed war hero and alcoholic turns up and starts a very violent fight with the couple. In defense of Leonard who is being badly beaten Maria kills Otto with a blow to the head.

The couple, aware that they cannot report this to the police as Otto was friends with most of them, decide they have to dispose of the body. They cut him up and pack him into cases Leonard has stolen from the tunnel. Leonard, exhausted and in shock, wanders through Berlin with the heavy cases trying to find somewhere to leave the body, then returns to his flat with them. While leaving his flat again with them the next day, he encounters Blake in the lift and claims it is equipment from the USA, then runs into Glass who admonishes him for removing equipment from the workplace and forces him to return the cases to the tunnel.

Leonard and Maria's relationship seems about to fall apart due to the strain of dismembering Otto's body, and both appear relieved when Leonard decides to go back to England for a short time. Just as his plane is about to take off he sees Maria and Bob Glass together. Convinced that they are having an affair he decides not to return, having been suspicious of them for some time now.

The novel then skips to them both in old age where Leonard receives a letter from Maria explaining that she was never unfaithful to him with Glass until his failure to reply to her letters and return to Berlin. She tells him they later married, moved to America and had three children, but that Glass has recently died. She reveals that Glass found out about Otto and helped cover for the killing, which was the reason for their suspicious behaviour together. The novel ends with Leonard determined to find Maria once more.


Leonard becomes fatally embroiled in the life of his German girlfriend, Maria. He finds his life changed forever in the space of one evening. A virgin, he is introduced to the delights of sex by Maria, who is herself entranced by his innocent charm. She is not threatened by him and this is very important to her. However her past catches up with her one fateful night. The tunnel, loyalties, all become part of Leonard's desperate attempt to escape his deed.The novel unravels Leonard's "innocence" in a deceptively comic fashion: the young Englishman, bumbling along, out of his depth, enduring jokes and insults from the Americans, suddenly finds himself at the abyss of fear and terror, where betrayal becomes easy.

Film adaptation[edit]

McEwan also wrote the screenplay for the 1993 movie of the same name.