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Wednesday, April 1, 2015


A Review of William L. Shirer's THE TRAITOR

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 along.

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.

But THE 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 others  are 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.

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