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Posts Tagged ‘Berlin’

THE SLEEPWALKERS by Paul Grossman: Book Review

Imagine holding your breath for the last three chapters of a book. That’s what I did when I read The Sleepwalkers by Paul Grossman.

A thriller that takes place in Berlin in 1932, when the Brownshirts are walking the streets  and Jews, Communists, and gays are threatened, The Sleepwalkers gets more tense from chapter to chapter.

Jewish Willi Kraus, a celebrated Inspektor-Detectiv in the city’s police force, is called away from a party to the site where the Rivers Spree and Havel meet.  There lies the body of a young woman, head shaved, whose beautiful teeth mark her as an American.  The next day, when the city’s pathologist examines her, he reports to Kraus that the woman had had an unimaginable surgery–her fibula, the bone that runs from ankle to knee, had been surgically removed and replaced upside down, making it almost impossible for her to walk.

While following up on this case Kraus is told to give priority to the missing princess of Bulgaria, in Berlin for a visit with her husband.  Her husband tells Kraus that the couple went to a nightclub where his wife was hypnotized.  All was well until the princess’s husband woke in the middle of the night to discover that his wife was no longer in their hotel suite.

When Kraus interviews the hotel’s doorman, he is told that the princess indeed came to the lobby at midnight, said she had to go out for cigarettes, asked for the location of the nearest train station, and left the hotel.  She walked like a sleepwalker, the doorman says.

Then Kraus discovers that there have been three other cases in which young women have gone missing, and all appeared to be “going somewhere in their sleep.”  Interestingly, all three were foreigners.  No one had put the three cases together yet, but Kraus is sure there’s a connection if only he can find it.

In the midst of all this is the rising strength of the Nazi Party. Although the reader knows that 1932 is just the beginning, there are already many ominous signs in the city.   Brownshirts march unmolested through the streets holding signs with grotesque caricatures of Jews, chanting “Every time you buy from Jews, you harm your fellow Germans!”  Newspaper articles encourage mob violence against Jews and Communists.  Jewish children are beaten up in schools while teachers ignore the bullies.  And yet the Jews couldn’t or wouldn’t read the handwriting on the wall.

Willi Kraus, holder of an Iron Cross, First Class for bravery in World War I, is still disbelieving:  “Had fear overcome all logic?  They still had a constitution, yes? An army.  Laws.  Had (they) so little faith in Germany, in (his) fellow Germans that he thought they’d sell themselves out to a gang of criminals?” One wants to shout yes, yes, yes, but of course one can’t change the past.

The Sleepwalkers is similar to several other books about the Weimar Republic (see my reviews of If the Dead Rise Not, May 24 and The Garden of Beasts, April 16).  However, the fact that Willi Kraus is a Jew as well as a detective and a medal-winning World War I soldier gives this novel a different twist.  He’s both on the inside and the outside.  There’s decadence, suspense, and history a-plenty in Paul Grossman’s first book.

You can read more about Paul Grossman on this web site.

IF THE DEAD RISE NOT by Philip Kerr: Book Review

Another Bernie Gunther novel by Philip Kerr, another winner.  If the Dead Rise Not, the sixth and latest in the series featuring a Berlin police detective/private investigator in 1930’s-40’s Germany, takes the reader from that Nazi-infested city in 1934 to the Mob-infested city of Havana in 1954.  Different criminals, different motives, same endings–death.

Bernie Gunther first appeared in March Violets and went on to appear in several other novels.  In If the Dead Rise Not the scene is pre-Olympics Berlin, with Adolf Hitler already in power and determined to show the world that his country is able to stage the greatest Games ever. But already the world is suspicious of him, with arrests and worse of German Jews, communists, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.  So an American “businessman” is sent to Berlin to convince Avery Brundage, who is visiting the city and is in charge of deciding whether the Americans will participate in the upcoming Olympics, that all the rumors of Nazi terrors are unfounded.  If you want an efficient, well-run Games, Max Reles tells Brundage, this is the city for you.

Similar to a mystery I reviewed earlier, The Garden of Beasts by Jeffrey Deaver, If the Dead Rise Not pulls the reader into pre-World War II Germany.  And this between war time period is very important to the plot.  The country is still suffering from its total defeat in the Great War.  Inflation is rampant, Teutonic pride has been hurt, territory has been lost, the British, French, and Amis (Americans) seem to have it all.  Someone (or many someones) must be to blame for all of that, and that appears to be anyone in the country who is not 100% Aryan through at least three generations.

Gunther is a throw-back to an earlier time, when there was law, as well as order, in the country, when shops didn’t have signs in front of them telling Christians not to buy from Jewish shops, when informers didn’t make neighbor fear neighbor.  Not to say that Bernie’s perfect–he knows how to go along to get along.  Bernie’s no Nazi and he does his job, which is now hotel detective at the famed Adlon Hotel, as well as he can without overtly antagonizing the Brown Shirts that seem to be on every corner.  But he tries to do the right thing, even when that comes back to bite him, as in the case of getting a young woman off the streets and into a respectable job with the afore-mentioned American businessman.  That backfires, and the murders begin.

Then the scene switches to Havana and the story of two other tyrants, Fulgencio Batista and Raul Castro. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose; the more things change, the more they stay the same (Alphonse Karr, 1849).  How right he was.  It seems as if no matter where Bernie goes, his past follows him.

I strongly suggest reading this series in order, which will allow the reader to follow the path of Bernie Gunther as well as the history of Germany.  It’s not a pretty read, but it’s a true one.

Unfortunately, Philip Kerr doesn’t have a designated web site, but you can read more about him at various sites on the Internet.