For this Berlin Noir review, I
thought it would be fun to take a trip back in time. We think of Berlin Noir as
being a somewhat recent literary genre and that is true to a certain extent
given the number of authors who have thrown their hats into the ring since
Philip Kerr published his first Bernie Gunther trilogy in the 1990s. However there
have been other, earlier works that are worth taking a look at and I'll review
them as I find them. If any fans out there have suggestions, please send them
One of the earliest of these I
know of is THE TRAITOR by William L. Shirer. First published in
1950, just 5 years after the war, and written by a man who lived the time
period rather than researching it, the novel is significant. And his real-life
experience shines through on every page.
Unfortunately, this is about all
that shines in the THE TRAITOR. Don't get me wrong, the story is compelling
- dealing with the world of foreign journalists in Berlin from the eve of war
to its aftermath. The characters are well drawn and memorable, the prose
capable in the hands of an experienced journalist.
THE TRAITOR is
amply named as the story deals with Oliver Knight, an American journalist who
is slowly seduced into working for the Nazis by the promise of prestige, wealth
and the "love" of an ex-prostitute turned opportunistic gold digger
calling herself The Princess. Knight's counterpart is Jack Goodman and, judging
from his name, you can guess the role he plays in the tale.
The bulk of the novel is the lead
up to WW2. Events play out with historical accuracy and we're given long
discourses amongst the journalists as to what it all means for themselves and
the world as a whole. Early on, there are lengthy flashback sequences to ground
Knight and Goodman and we learn more about them than we really need to know.
How they both fell under the spell of The Princess, their professional rivalry
and how they came to be the people they are and so on.
Once the war is in full swing,
it's more of the same with the main characters reacting to events. Goodman and
most of the other journalists are expelled from Germany of course and Knight if
left to report on what foreign dignitaries reveal as well as being forced to
place false code information in his radio broadcasts in the novel's best scene.
Watching the Nazis draw the noose tight around Knight's neck reveals in
chilling prose just how much they have been manipulating him.
It is only toward the end of the
book, and the war, that there is any real action. The plot to assassinate
Hitler is delved into and this is exciting stuff as we see Goodman and Knight
on either side of the plot. Sadly, this is a relatively small portion of the
book but it is riveting as the plot to kill Hitler goes awry and those involved
are rounded up right up until the end of the war.
The novel's strength is also its
greatest weakness. What the journalists go through is expertly depicted, having
read Shirer's non-fiction work about this time period, he does not exaggerate or
embellish the daily dealings the reporters had fighting for stories and
attending press conferences held by the Nazi hierarchy. Reading this stuff in a
non-fiction work is captivating and I highly recommend his other books.
TRAITOR is a novel and must give us compelling characters who move
the action forward. Yes, the characters are compelling but they are also
reporters, which means the bulk of the novel is simply their reacting and what
othersare doing. It's as if they are
reporting on the events of the novel rather than "living" them.
Overall I recommend THE TRAITOR but with the caveat that readers go in knowing full well that this is not a modern day Berlin Noir thriller. The pace is slow, tedious at times, and plowing through pages and pages of the main characters simply commenting on events acted out by others removes one from the action. It is uneven but well written. You can place this one in the middle of the pack of Berlin Noir books. It's mildly entertaining, historically significant to the genre and not a bad reading experience. If you can find a copy in a thrift store or bargain bin somewhere, don't hesitate to grab it as you'll get the full purchase price worth of entertainment. THE TRAITOR, in its way, kicks off the whole Berlin Noir game. Check it out if you can.