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Monday, September 23, 2013


A Review of Rebecca Cantrell's A TRACE OF SMOKE

This is where the Vogel saga begins. The first of four (to date) Berlin Noir outings, A TRACE OF SMOKE introduces us to newspaper crime reporter Hannah Vogel. It is 1931 and Berlin is still the sin capital of Europe, every vice is readily available for those who have an appetite and Berliners are famished. Amidst political and social unrest, the Nazi shadow is just beginning to lengthen from beneath the Weimar Republic and it will engulf the city in a few short years. Vogel discovers her brother's picture amongst the unclaimed, unknown dead at the Alex. It is her brother - a cross-dressing, homosexual cabaret performer - and begins to quietly investigate his death.

What follows is not very compelling reading unless one is a fan of romance/relationship novels. Vogel soon finds herself looking after a young boy claiming to be her brother's son. She becomes romantically involved while looking after the child while investigating and everything becomes an uninteresting slog for this reader. Fans of chick-lit might have a better reading experience. I was willing to cut Cantrell some slack as this is her first novel, but the prose is just too flat and dull. Having read others in the series, there's not been much improvement in my opinion.

All of the above could easily be better tolerated if the author had been able to create that sense of place that is so crucial to period fiction. Sadly, she cannot. The historical details are there but do not envelope the reader, allowing him or her to recreate this lost Berlin in their minds. Instead they remind us of when the tale is set and that is all.

This along with an over emphasis on Vogel and her troubles while Weimar Germany is in its death throes shines the spotlight a little too brightly on one aspect of the tale while the other is barely present.

Ultimately, A TRACE OF SMOKE is weak Berlin Noir. It's my hope that the nature of the story will bring readers to Berlin Noir and much better authors who craft it. As for the novel itself, it doesn't hold up too well. It's a thin, mediocre read that might work better with a different audience. This reader was left feeling flat.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


A Review of Ariana Franklin's CITY OF SHADOWS

In Ariana Franklin's contribution to Berlin Noir, we are taken back to Berlin in 1922 for a meandering tale of deceit and corruption set against the rising darkness that would soon swallow the city, the country and, ultimately, the world.

The novel kicks off with a prologue featuring a woman being thrown off a bridge into the Landwehr Canal by a large, unseen assailant in 1920. In the first of a couple of jumps, the first chapter begins in 1922 where a disfigured Russian Jew named Esther who has been reduced to taking a job as secretary (and 'lover') to another Russian immigrant calling himself Prince Nick who is a weaseling, amoral, money-grubbing, cabaret-owning, opportunist and exploiter who is on the make and on the rise. Nick has stumbled upon a woman in a mental hospital who he believes to be Princess Anastasia who had escaped the assassination of her family in Russia years before. Nick doesn't particularly care if she is royalty or not, he's going to groom her for the role and line his pockets when the big news story breaks. However the women in question believes she is being hunted by Russian assassins and is in terror for her life. So Esther is ordered by Nick to take care of this woman and help with preparing the deception from the apartment that Nick has provided for them.

The above is the spine on which the tale hangs and this is all going on while the Communists, Nazis are on the rise and poverty reigns in Berlin. When the bodies start piling up, the police get involved and the tale becomes one that is hard to pin down.

The novel switches point of view, beginning with Esther before bouncing between her and Nick and eventually a policeman, Schmidt, and his investigation into the murders surrounding the attempts to eliminate the faux Anastasia.

As intriguing as the tale is, things do get muddled and overly complex with all of these switches in focus and main characters come and go with some regularity. Once the focus is off first Nick, and then Esther, Schmidt claims the spotlight for awhile. Ernst Rohm's evil presence enters into the tale when Schmidt has a run-in with him with disastrous, tragic results which leads to the policeman - desperate and vengeful - meekly accepting a transfer to Munich. This makes sense as he really has no choice, but it does seem abrupt.

The next jump in the tale is a jarring one. At the moment when the multiple-murderer is still out there, Schmidt's wife's death has gone un-avenged, the budding romance between Schmidt and Esther has not yet bloomed and the mystery of Anastasia remains unresolved, the book jumps ahead 10 years to 1932. Throw in the off-screen death of a main character and the novel begins to slide off the rails. More murders, more deception, Nazis on the rise... all of these should be an interesting mix. But in Franklin's hands they become, ultimately, an uninteresting tangle. Things simply take too long to progress and constant repetition of what has happened earlier in the book further slow things down. The romance between Schmidt and Esther also fails to engage given the amount of time spent on it. Finally I found myself plodding through the rest of the book just to see how it ends. An anti-climatic close to the murder investigation and an interesting twist at the end characterize the ying-yang aspect of the novel.

I'm not saying that CITY OF SHADOWS is not worth your time. The story is an intriguing one and Franklin does an excellent job of recreating 1920s/1930s Berlin with some great period details as well as capturing the feel of that tense time. The characters are well drawn as well. What hurts the novel is the length as the it winds its way through history. Also, the alternating focus did not throw this reader but others might have a problem with it.

In the final analysis, CITY OF SHADOWS is a worthy read that's not without its problems. Put this one in the middle of the Berlin Noir canon: nothing extraordinary and yet not poorly written either. Your mileage may vary.

Monday, September 9, 2013


A Review of Philip Kerr's IF THE DEAD RISE NOT

One of the highlights of Kerr's Bernie Gunther series is that you never know, book to book, what you're going to get. While other bestselling authors find a winning formula and stick with it, Kerr stirs the pot every chance he gets. The series began in linear fashion with the first three novels moving from 1936 (MARCH VIOLETS) to 1938 (THE PALE CRIMINAL)  to 1947 (A GERMAN REQUIEM) in chronological order. Returning to the series years later, Kerr decided to mix things up and jump around in the life of the character (THE ONE FROM THE OTHER, A QUIET FLAME and IF THE DEAD RISE NOT and FIELD GREY) before switching gears yet again with novels relating Gunther's war years: PRAGUE FATALE and A MAN WITHOUT BREATH.

IF THE DEAD RISE NOT begins before MARCH VIOLETS and, at the outset appears to be a tale set solidly in the Berlin of the 1930s. The year is 1934 and Gunther is working as the house dick at the luxurious Hotel Adlon. With the Olympics looming, business all over Berlin is booming and every con man and crooked operator has leeched onto the cash cow. There is also political unrest as the Nazis' anti-Semitic policies are not unknown to the rest of the world contemplating boycotting the games in protest. It's a volatile time and Gunther is right in the middle of it.

A suspicious death at the Adlon coupled with the theft of an item from the room of a wealthy American gets the tale rolling and soon Gunther is up to his ears in corruption and the tide is rising fast. Then he falls in love with Noreen, a Jewish-American reporter, and then things start to get really complicated. A dead, seemingly drowned boxer, construction company scandals, gangsters, the Gestapo and the race to get things ready for the Games coupled with Kerr's incredible ability to recreate the past and IF THE DEAD RISE NOT gets into gear. This is no potboiler though. With so many plot elements and historical elements to be recreated, the novel takes place on a much broader canvas - one that takes time to visualize. There are a lot of memorable characters coming and going throughout the book as well so that the whole can sometimes seem like it is reading longer than it actually is. There's some great action and Gunther once again finds himself eye to eye with the Grim Reaper when things come to a head.

Breaking with the format he set up for the time-shift novels where they begin in the "present" (1950s) then bounce backwards, Kerr pulls a fast one. Having started IF THE DEAD RISE NOT in the 1934, the novel jumps ahead 20 years to 1954 where the plot threads from the Berlin 1934 section will finally play out. Gunther is in Cuba, still living under an assumed name, after having fled Argentina. He's old, miserable, missing Germany but living quiet and this last part is the major cause of his misery. Gunther misses the action and that action drops into his lap when Noreen suddenly appears in Cuba to launch the last leg of the novel's plot.

Kerr's characterizations here are one of the
highlights of the book. This is no sappy romance where the two lovers, separated by history, fall into each other's arms as the curtain falls. No, Gunther and Noreen are adult, middle-aged realists whose lives have taken them in different directions. One of those directions for Noreen is her daughter's affair with the very gangster Gunther had butted heads with in the Berlin section. But that's the least of his worries. Revolution is in the air, US gangsters are crawling into the cracks of the country with dollar signs in their eyes and Cuba is a powder keg waiting for the fuse to be lit.

Again, Kerr effortlessly recreates Cuba in 1954 and you start sweating by the second page of this section. This, coupled with a bevy or real and fictional - yet interesting - characters make for a rich tapestry that end with a revelation no keen reader should take as a surprise and another that will shock.

IF THE DEAD RISE NOT is not a novel meant to be devoured in one sitting though you might be tempted to do so. Rather it's an immersion in a world that no longer exists and it brings us into the lives of captivating characters, however unsavory, whose desires, greed and hopelessness is spellbinding. I consider it one of the strongest novels in the series.