Even if it does employ that old trope of the kinky-crime genre, the Nazis, Rebecca Cantrell’s ATrace of Smoke still delivers an engrossing tale of crime in pre-World War II Berlin. I’ve finally figured out that crime fiction set in the Nazi era works best when our heroes are part of the system, even if they rebel (quietly or not) against it. Like Bernie Gunther, Cantrell’s protagonist Hannah Vogel lives and works in Berlin, and has to figure out how to do that without completely pissing off the emerging Nazi power structure. It is 1931, so they are not quite officially in charge yet, but the party and it’s thug-arm of the Sturmabteilung (SA) are making their menacing presence felt by beating up Jews, boycotting businesses, and enforcing laws against perverted behavior (despite the fact that half of them engage in this behavior with great enthusiasm). These stories are more interesting, more nuanced, and ultimately more believable when it is a member of that society trying to work it out, trying to not to believe that his/her country is going down this ghastly road, rather than an outsider like a British journalist, for example, who can be more easily outraged and simply horrified at it all. The insider perspective gives a little window into that old question: how did the Germans let this happen?
Hannah is a crime journalist, so is all too familiar with the seedy underside of Berlin, which in 1931 is pretty seedy indeedy. She knows what the Nazis are capable of, but also is all too aware of the dreadful crimes regular folk commit, and still thinks Germans will come to their sense over this brownshirt terror business. Her brother is a singer in a gay nightclub, and the story opens as she discovers he has been murdered. Hannah’s path in this tale is pretty straightforward, she wants to find out what happened, but along the way she meets all kinds of characters, Nazi and otherwise, who are a lot more complicated than their brown shirt or future pink triangle might indicate. Throw in a lost child, some rare jewels, and a hot banker, and you’ve got a pretty good story.
Cantrell writes with confidence about pre-war Berlin, not surprising given that she lived and studied there for years. The settings are carefully researched, and there are some surprisingly tasty meals! (Wurst, plum cake, sauerbraten, Berliner weisse, anyone?) There is an excellent overlay of Depression-era poverty, demonstrating that a lot of Germans are just struggling to get by, and this grounds this story more realistically than one finds in many tales of Nazi excess. The bit about shopping at Wertheim, and leaving the store, is terrific in a sad and chilling way.
A Trace of Smoke is the first in a series of four books, so far, featuring Hannah. I was slightly put off by the action-packed intro to the second one, The Night of Long Knives which is included in the back of this book. Too much derring-do doesn’t do it for me. But I’m sure I’ll read it.