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.