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Wednesday, November 27, 2013


A Review of Paul Grossman's CHILDREN OF WRATH

Although published after Grossman's novel, THE SLEEPWALKERS, CHILDREN OF WRATH is actually a prequel to that first Willi Kraus adventure. The first novel was set in 1932 but in this second tale of Kripo's most famous, and Jewish, detective, Grossman takes us back to the end of 1929 to show us how Kraus made a name for himself.
Kraus, a decorated WWI hero, begins an investigation into a found bag of gnawed human bones. The bones of children. Yes, Berlin has become the hunting ground for a serial killer preying on the denizens of the street and Kraus is determined to hunt the killer down. However, with more enemies than friends in the police department, Kraus soon finds himself taken off the case and given the job of uncovering the proliferation of tainted meat at the city's slaughterhouses. Lives have been lost and his bosses want this cleared up quickly while the search for the serial killer is put in the hands of a detective more fitted (read: more Aryan) to handle the high-profile investigation.

Undaunted, Kraus investigates both cases - one officially, the other during his spare time.

What follows is not for the squeamish. But, first, how does Grossman handle the history? Very well, actually. The novel has that ever-elusive immersive feel to the setting. Details are occasionally heavy but that is the nature of the beast with historical fiction and Grossman has done his research - in spades. The look, the feel, sights and sounds - all are here and the reader is transported to the Berlin of 1929-1930 before jumping to 1947 for a very brief Epilogue that has little bearing on the plot. The sexual 'deviance' of Weimar Berlin is well presented and set against the political upheaval in motion as the Republic goes through its death throes.

Now a word of warning for you faint of heart. Want to know how the Berlin slaughterhouses operated in 1929? Want to know EVERYTHING about the slaughterhouses? You'll find out in these pages. And that's just the beginning. Let me repeat, the novel deals with the abduction, murder and butchering of children and there is no light road to tread with this subject. Grossman could easily, and disastrously, tried to straddle the fence with this material in the hope of appealing to the widest audience. Thankfully he does not do this with CHILDREN OF WRATH. The novels pulls no punches. I was not put off by the subject matter but feel compelled to mention that, for those who are, this novel may offend. The novel is graphic, bloody and disturbing. Examples of child torture and abuse appear in these pages. You've been warned.

Grossman does a very good job of permitting us to walk a mile in his hero's shoes. The investigation is well handled as are the office politics and antisemitism. Kraus's personal life and how the job affects his relationships is realistically depicted but takes up too much space in the book when you consider the gravity of the subject matter cast against the history and the extremely well depicted expanding shadow of Nazism. This last is one of the highlights of the novel, the odd touch here and there that slowly grows until the end of the novel is but the beginning of the end of Germany.

The end result is an engaging read I guarantee you will never forget. As a whole, the novel is a tad uneven and the prose is often uninspired especially when the novel drifts into Kraus's domestic problems. As this is a series some of the less than familial bliss Kraus experiences pays off in THE SLEEPWALKERS. A good bit of action tinged with melodrama at the end give the novel the kind of spice I like in a thriller.

Ultimately, I recommend CHILDREN OF WRATH. It's well-researched, transports the reader to that turbulent time in Berlin and is unflinching in its approach to unsettling subject matter. I'd put Grossman behind Philip Kerr and Jonathan Rabb on the list of best Berlin Noir practitioners. A third Kraus adventure, BROTHERHOOD OF FEAR, is set to be released early next year. It appears to be set entirely in France which will keep it from being reviewed here but I'll certainly give it a read. Grossman is an author to watch.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


A Review of David Downing's STETTIN STATION

David Downing's third volume in the John Russell series is an improvement over the other Downing book reviewed here at Berlin Noir Reviews but that's not saying much. Set in Berlin a month before the Pearl Harbor attack, the first cracks in the 1000-year Reich are just starting to show as the city is being bombed by the British and the Russian campaign has taken a turn for the worst. Everyone is wondering if the US will enter the war and, soon, the answer to that question would make itself felt with cataclysmic results.

And yet a tenuous optimism struggles to persist. The Nazis are busy being Nazis, journalists from around the world are spoon-fed what they need to know and forbidden to report what they've find out on their own as the city holds its breath.

Although the novel reads better than SILESIAN STATION, it suffers from the same shortcomings. The plot centers around John Russell's attempt to evade the Gestapo while working for the NKVD and the Abwehr at the same time. If this seems familiar, it's because this is the same plot as SILESIAN STATION. Let me clarify. As a series, the books do not appear to be stand alone adventures and Russell's walking of the razor's edge carries over from one book to the next.

In STETTIN STATION, Russell and his lady-love, an actress named Effi, are soon convinced the time has come to leave Germany together before he gets thrown out and must leave Effi behind. Goebbels is not about to let one of the shining lights of his propaganda moving making machine just walk away and Russell is accused of espionage so a simple getaway is not going to happen. A considerable portion of the book is dedicated to showing us how Effi becomes disillusioned with her job. Set against the impending entry of the US and building tension in Berlin as a result, this plot line hardly seems to matter and fails to captivate.

Also, the book is far too talky. With all of the tension in the air, there's not much actually going on. The characters move from place to place, talking about what they must do to survive and what the future holds. Even the "escape" provides days in hiding where more chatter about their plight can be related as opposed to actual action. There are spurts of action toward the end, but STETTIN STATION is no thriller. The prose is sparse, uninspired and devoid of what John D. MacDonald called "unobtrusive poetry". And there is no resolution.

Historical details are plentiful and help to create a sense of Berlin under the Nazis but they fail to totally immerse the reader. They put a frame around the plot and seem authentic but occasionally act only as necessary window dressing for the next conversation - a photograph of a delicious meal we are detached from.

This lack of resolution to important plotlines will also leave readers gritting their teeth. Downing expects readers to be on board for the whole series and the fate of some characters are left to the next book just as the start of STETTIN STATION carried over story elements from the previous installment in the series. Given Downing's dull plotting and flat prose, that's a tall order for readers as the series currently runs six volumes. As a series it begs to be read in order so reader should keep that in mind before attempting to dive in.

Summing up, I enjoyed STETTIN STATION slightly more than I did SILESIAN STATION. So far this series can be filed in the 'take it or leave it' category. Nothing dismal yet nothing to get excited about either. I can't say I'm enthusiastic for the remaining novels but I can hope the slow moving plot eventually resolves itself with some satisfaction and enjoyment. There's nowhere to go but up for the John Russell series.