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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

GATES OF BABYLON

A Review of Volker Kutscher's BABYLON BERLIN
  

Already a bestselling series in Germany and translated into other languages worldwide, it was high time the English market got a translation of the first novel, BABYLON BERLIN. I'm sure the forthcoming television series had a lot to do with that. Yes, Bernie Gunther fans, Kutscher's Gereon Rath series has won the race to the small screen with the ambitious adaptation debuting in October.

So how does the first novel in the series measure up? In short, very well! But that's hardly a detailed review, is it?

BABYLON BERLIN introduces us to Detective Inspector Gereon Rath newly assigned to the Alex in Berlin. This isn't any rookie coming into his own yarn, however. No, Rath is an experienced policeman who had been stationed in Cologne until an officer-involved shooting (Rath being the officer) led to a lot of bad press. It was decided that what was best for the parties involved if Rath transferred out of Cologne. With his father holding a high position in law enforcement, getting Rath to Berlin was not a problem.

With this set up, one would expect Rath to want to keep a low profile at his new digs. But this is where BABYLON BERLIN doesn't play it safe. Although not working in Homicide, Rath decides to investigate the murder of a man beaten to death and placed in a car plunged into the Landwehr Canal.

What follows is pure police procedural and that's not a bad thing. Fans of Berlin Noir have seen the heroes of other novels get involved in politics, have Forrest Gump moments with historical figures from high ranking Nazis on down, or work in the espionage field. All well and good when well written. What seems something of a rarity these days is a straight-up police investigation. And this makes BABYLON BERLIN  a refreshing change of pace.

And it's a good one! Kutscher tinges Rath's path through Weimar Berlin in 1929 with a very nice shade of James Ellroy. Rath's a dedicated policeman, yes. But he's also a player. He wants to be assigned to the Homicide Division and he won't let anyone stand in his way. His actions are geared towards benefiting his career as well as solving the case and bending the rules a mite to accomplish this is not out of bounds.

The case itself is a compelling one and Kutscher doles out the details very well. The setting of the dying days of the Weimar Republic is also very well presented with the barest hint of Nazism in the air while rival political factions fight it out on the street. Period detail is excellent and is presented in an unobtrusive way - so well done, you'll feel like you've lived in the period all your life.

As a whole, BABYLON BERLIN belongs in the upper echelon of Berlin Noir entries. It's a compelling read where the motivations of the characters drive the plot equally as much as the plot captivates.

My only knock, and it's a minor one, is that I feel the book loses something in the translation. While enjoying the novel, I couldn't shake this feeling I should be enjoying it more. With millions of copies sold in Germany, Sweden, France and Spain with a couple of literary awards thrown in, I expected a bit more pop to the writing. There's even a graphic novel of this first entry in the series. Don't get me wrong, BABYLON BERLIN is required reading if you're a fan of Berlin Noir. It's just that the English version didn't over-wow me.

That said, BABYLON BERLIN is a must read. The first of, currently, six novels, it hits the ground running and provides a fantastic reading experience. The second novel, THE SILENT DEATH, is also out in an English translation from Sandstone Press and I'm eagerly awaiting my copy. It will be reviewed here, you can count on that.

Summing up, BABYLON BERLIN is a great read. Get ready for the RV series now by picking up a copy. It's my hope the entire series gets English translations because seeing Kutscher's and Rath's Berlin slowly swallowed up by Nazism will be a bitter-sweet enjoyment in the hands of this capable author. Bottom line, Kerr is still the reigning champion but Volker Kutscher is hot on his heels. BABYLON BERLIN is a winner. Do not miss it.
 


Friday, May 26, 2017

TANGLED UP IN BLUE

A Review of Philip Kerr's PRUSSIAN BLUE

Bernie Gunther's back - and for Berlin Noir fans that's good news! The most recent installments of the series have been a tad hit or miss and I'm pleased to announce that Prussian Blue hits the bullseye. 
Following the usual routine, the novel is split in two, telling us tales set in 1939 - on the eve of World War Two and 1956 - as Bernie is hiding out in France. This is not a structure I care for particularly but the Gunther series is the exception to the rule and makes it work by having Gunther revisit the '39 territory in the '56 tale and the weight those heavy years have played on him are shown to good effect.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. What's the darn book about?

It begins in 1956. The summer season is drawing to a close andFrench Riviera is about to end. He quickly falls afoul of Erich Mielke, now working in the GDR government with the Soviets in East Germany. Mielke has a simple task for Gunther: murder Anne French, the woman who got the better of Gunther in the last novel - The Other Side of Silence. And he's certainly given a choice: commit the murder or die a slow, agonizing death. Knowing full well that Mielke will do away with him whether he completes the mission or not, Gunther must go on the run with Stasi agents hot on his heels.
Gunther's hotel job on the

During a brief moment of down time while on the run, Gunther is drawn back to the assignment Reinhard Heydrich forced him to take in 1939 and a trip to Hitler's retreat at Berchtesgaden. A man has been shot with a sniper rifle on the balcony and that's just a little too close for Martin Bormann who is overseeing the preparations for Hitler's return to celebrate his 50th birthday.  Thus Gunther is presented with another simple choice: solve the case in one week or suffer the consequences. And there's nowhere in Nazi Germany to run this time.

And we're off. With the majority of the novel set in 1939 and the intriguing murder investigation, the flash "forwards" to 1956 are also compelling. The noose tightening around Gunther's neck while on the run makes for great reading.

The result is a chase tale and police procedural at the same Hitler's retreat at Berchesgarden and the surrounding area, you'll know it like the back of your hand by the time you reach the last page. The plotting is also much leaner. There's no romance for Bernie this time out, which is a good thing. Sure, women throwing themselves at the hero is a staple of the genre but, being overplayed as it is, it's tough to bring anything new to the table. Having Gunther focusing on solving a murder to stay alive and on the run for the same reason, leaves little room for bedroom antics. The result is a lean, mean, Nazi-bashing machine. Prussian Blue, though 500+  pages, gets the job done quickly and efficiently and never bogs down. It starts quick and barrels along to a satisfying conclusion.
time. Kerr's writing is always a cut above the norm and his research has rooted out the telling period detail to place the reader firmly back in those turbulent years. If you were unfamiliar with


My one knock against the book is that Gunther, being a policeman of extraordinary experience, should be a little better at being on the run. He occasionally makes it far too easy for the Stasi to find him. Perhaps this goes with his cynicism and fatalistic approach to life and this stage of the game. Or maybe they occur to make the writer's life easier. Only Kerr can say.
 
Prussian Blue is a great read! Kerr has stumbled recently with The Lady From Zagreb in this reader's opinion but has regained his form with The Other Side of Silence and this new, kind of sequel. You want action? Prussian Blue's got it. You want intrigue? Look no further. Kerr has carved out a worthy legacy with the Bernie Gunther series and Prussian Blue is a significant entry. It's a fine read. Don't miss it!




Monday, May 22, 2017

20K

BERLIN NOIR REVIEWS - 20,000 VIEWS!

 

I was just about to post a review for Philip Kerr's PRUSSIAN BLUE when the blog hit a milestone - surpassing 20,000 views!

 

I want to thank everyone who has stopped by. I hope you have enjoyed the reviews. There will be more to come.

 

Look for my review of PRUSSIAN BLUE before the end of the week. And, as always, feel free to leave a comment or suggestion. Thanks!