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Monday, March 25, 2013


A Review of THE  SLEEPWALKERS by Paul Grossman

It's November, 1932 in Berlin. Germany, and the world, are about to start down a dark path to oblivion. The government is in turmoil, Communists and Nazis are in a tug of war for power and Germany holds its collective breath.

For Inspektor Willi Kraus, however, things are starting to pick up. Still grieving for the loss of his wife, Kraus is also beset by fame for being the man who collared a notorious serial killer. Balancing family life with his young boys and his moment in the sun as a household name, things couldn't be better and he is convinced that the dark cloud hovering over the city and the country will not darken his door.

Thing is, Willi Kraus is Jewish.

Spared the full brunt of anti-Semitism due to his notoriety, Kraus is not oblivious to what is going on in Berlin but holds on to the hope that the madness will be temporary since he, and so many others, are convinced that the Nazis will never seize power. Others know better and the exodus out of Germany is well underway.

There's a new case to take his mind of his troubles. The dead body of a young girl is found washed up on the riverbank. Not too uncommon in Berlin but this girl has had grisly surgery performed on her. The lower bones in her legs have been removed, rotated, then grafted back on to the knees and ankles. A case only the famous Willi Kraus can solve.

The above breakdown is the stuff that Berlin Noir dreams are made of. An interesting character immersing himself in an intriguing police procedural against the backdrop of the last days of the Weimar Republic. What more can a Berlin Noir fan ask for?

Sadly, with THE SLEEPWALKERS, quite a bit.

The novel starts with a bang and Grossman's recreation of Berlin is second only to Philip Kerr's Gunther novels. Precise details, sights, sounds... the city springs to life in all its glory and all its misery and the details never slow the pace or otherwise bog down the narrative.

The problem I had with THE SLEEPWALKERS was the narrative itself. Kraus begins his investigation with a young protégé named Gunther (a wink to Mr. Kerr?) which leads to secrets the Nazis will do anything to hide. The political climate is getting worse by the minute and Kraus's friends and relatives are getting out while they can. Kraus himself sends his boys to Paris as the noose tightens. This is all compelling reading. Especially when Hindenburg himself saddles him a missing person's case and the disappearance of a visiting dignitary's wife is expected to take precedence over the dead girl. Or else.

But when Kraus meets a prostitute with a heart of gold in the course of his investigations, the novel's initial drive grinds to a dead stop. Part of this is understandable as Kraus has kept his emotions, and libido, in check since his wife died but the instantaneous love he feels for Paula soon has him mooning like a lovesick puppy to the point where he actually stops showing up for work to engage in some "sleeping in." This deflates the narrative drive. Grossman makes no secret that Kraus is being watched and is under the gun to bring his cases to a satisfactory conclusion and this diversion leads the reader to conclude that Kraus's professional standing can't be that big a deal after all. It certainly doesn't affect him.

The story does pick up after this interlude however. Paula is used as bait to draw out the Nazis involved with the disappearance of both girls. Yes, the cases are connected under a pall of secrets and rooting them out is a task with disastrous consequences.

The novels also has an element that I felt drifted into the area of steampunk. A chunk of the plot concerns hypnosis used for nefarious means by a master hypnotist - ways that hypnosis simply cannot be used. Outside of pulp novels, that is. Seeing how much research Grossman put into his excellent depictions of Berlin, I assumed the same could be said about his delving into hypnosis. Which is why, at one point, I had to put the book down and google hypnosis to see if the clichés of a million thrillers were true over known fact. They aren't. I can only assume that Grossman, who admits in a note at the end of the novel that he performs some major time shifts with events and real people in the book, did the same with hypnosis, playing up the sensationalized fictional tropes against the real thing. This is a novel after all. Not a textbook. As the old saying goes: never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Summing up, THE SLEEPWALKERS is not a bad novel. As a first novel, it's above par but suffers from the missteps typical of such efforts.  Grossman's Berlin descriptions are excellent, Willi Kraus is an interesting lead and offsetting a German hero being also Jewish at a turbulent time was a nice touch. The plot is interesting although the narrative fails to maintain its momentum. By tying the climax of the book with a real historical event, the impact of the outcome is lost on readers who know their Berlin history and can see where the story is going miles before it gets there. Grossman does show promise however and I, for one, would like to see if he sticks with Berlin Noir. He has for the moment as a prequel novel, CHILDREN OF WRATH, showing us how Willi Kraus got famous has been released.

THE SLEEPWALKERS is a so-so Berlin Noir read. I'd put this one in the middle of the pack. If you're looking for a by the numbers recreation of history, then the novel will not satisfy. If you're looking for a riveting procedural, you could do better but also a lot worse.

SIDE NOTE: a free KINDLE "story": FINGER OF GUILT is available for download. Claiming to be a short story, it reads as an excerpt from CHILDREN OF WRATH and is merely a vignette, not a short story at all. However it is free if you'd like to check out Grossman's writing style before diving into his two novels.

Monday, March 18, 2013


A Review of A German Requiem

Philip Kerr's A GERMAN REQUIEM closes out the original trilogy of Bernie Gunther novels collected in BERLIN NOIR. The year is 1947 (9 years after the proceeding novel: THE PALE CRIMINAL, see review below) and Gunther is back in Berlin after a "break" in a Soviet labor camp following the German surrender. There isn't much left of the city he once knew and the occupying powers are helping themselves to what remains while the black market thrives. Berlin has become a city that runs exclusively on crime, more a place of desperation and misery than ever before and not only do we learn that Gunther has a wife, but that wife, like so many Berliners of that time, has taken the only way open to her to stay alive: she's selling herself to an American officer.

When Gunther gets an offer to investigate a former police and SS colleague arrested for the murder of an American soldier in Vienna, he is at first reluctant to leave - given his marital problems - but eventually agrees not only to get away from his situation, but to earn enough money in the hopes of gaining the ability to provide his wife with the things she is trading sex for. Also, by murdering a Russian soldier in self-defence, putting a little distance between himself and Berlin is not a bad idea.

No, it's worse.

Vienna may have come through the war in better shape than Berlin, but the city is still a hotbed of intrigue and corruption. Like Berlin, the city is divided into zones governed by the Russians, the Americans and the British. The Russians are seeking to lower the Iron Curtain and cut off the west. The Americans and the British are trying to appear cooperative while really a power struggle seethes beneath the surface.

As Gunther delves into the case against his former colleague, the plot takes a turn into espionage and cover-ups. Soon, he is in a tool in the hand of Soviet, US and Nazi agents all seeking to manipulate him to their ends. Crosses and double-crosses ensue until Gunther, and the reader, don't know who to trust.

Kerr pulls off some of his best writing in A GERMAN REQUIEM. Not only is the hopeless atmosphere of post-war Berlin and Vienna expertly realized, but the power struggle between the occupying nations hangs like a pall over everything. Into this frame, Kerr paints a picture of the shadow war which heralded the Cold War. Everything and everyone of value is being collected not only to be exploited by the occupying nations but also to keep it out of the hands of the enemy. The aura of self-serving distrust makes for compelling gloom as we watch Gunther try to keep a whole skin while weaving his way through this labyrinth. It's a time to for everyone to choose sides and Gunther doesn't like his options. The novel has some great dialogue. The actions sequences are brutal and unflinching, the outcome uncertain. This is a recipe for a great read and A GERMAN REQUIEM delivers.

I suppose the case could be made that A GERMAN REQUIEM is not a Berlin Noir novel as the majority of the book is set in Vienna but that's a matters for readers to debate over a beer. It's part of the original trilogy of Berlin cop Bernie Gunther's adventures and that's enough for me. However this is the last Gunther novel we Berlin Noir fans got from Kerr for 15 years as he took a break from Gunther to explore other fictional possibilities. As such, it leaves Gunther in Vienna and uncertain of his future until Kerr continues the sage in THE ONE FROM THE OTHER.

A GERMAN REQUIEM is an engaging, literary mystery and holds up whether read on its own or as part of the omnibus. Kerr is up there with the modern masters of mystery, in the same class as Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, Spillane and Burke. REQUIEM is a fitting end to the first wave of Gunther books.

Next up Berlin Noir will look at THE SLEEPWALKERS by Paul Grossman. See you next week.

Monday, March 11, 2013


A Review of Craig Nova's THE INFORMER

THE INFORMER introduces us to a variety of colorful characters but the main thrust of the story deals with a prostitute name Gaelle and her pimp, a sixteen-year-old boy named Felix as they struggle to survive on the rough streets of Berlin in 1930. Communists and Nazis clash, there is fighting in the streets and the stage has been set for a clear political winner to emerge and take control of the country still recovering from the Treaty of Versailles and the depths of the 1920s economic woes.

Gaelle is the daughter of a well-to-do family and was horribly burned in an automobile accident. Half of her face is scarred while the other half is unmarked and beautiful. However her scars have driven her from home where she is left to fend for herself on the streets. Her disfigurement has made her a sought-after prostitute as Berlin's sexual deviance is still in full swing.

As Gaelle plies her trade, she is also playing a dangerous game as an informer, collecting political secrets from customers which she sells to the warring political factions. She knows this will get her killed but dying is very much on her mind - as it is with most of the characters in the novel.

While this is going on, we meet Armina Treffen, a female police inspector for Inspectorate A at Kripo. She is investigating the serial murders of young women in and around the Tiergarten while her superiors and fellow inspectors are beginning to align themselves with the various political groups for their own protection.

This is the basic set up for Nova's morose novel. Although the tale is not rich in period detail, it does delve into the human condition as we watch Nova's broken cast of characters try to destroy themselves. Lost love, found love, longing, despair and desperation are the orders of the day here. Nova is an excellent writer and the characters leap off the page as fully rounded, though emotionally stunted, individuals.

Sadly, the strength of the novel is also its greatest weakness. Long sections are spent burrowing into the heads of these characters, so much so that it's easy to forget that there is a serial killer on the loose. We learn everything about them while women continue to be murdered, the noose is tightening around Gaelle's informing neck, and politics dominate the scene. A third of the way through the book, the focus shifts away from the plot and into the harried lives of the main characters and the balance is never restored. As good as the character moments are, they so swamp the novel that there is no room for the setting, the historical point of time or the plot to breathe.

The plot does come to a head ultimately, however, and in dramatic fashion. Then the novel jumps ahead 15 years to the Summer of 1945 for what is the best section of the novel. Treffen is living in the US, having been able to leave Germany because she was a police officer and considered a good German. Only her US benefactors want her to return to Berlin to help clear the streets of riff-raff while the citizens clear the streets of rubble. It is here that we get some great atmospheric details as Treffen tries to find her way through what is left of the city while navigating the labyrinth of the power struggle amongst the occupying armies.

THE INFORMER is a slow-moving, sometimes plodding read that presents interesting material in an uninteresting way. Yes, the writing is very strong, but the pace grinds to a complete standstill by the mid-point with the main characters wallowing in their faults and the short section in 1945 at the end, while good, cannot make up for what has come before. If you're in the mood for a deep novel on the human condition on a rainy Sunday afternoon, then this one will fit the bill. If you're looking for an edge-of-your-seat historical thriller, you'd best look elsewhere.