Monday, July 15, 2013
A Review of David R. Gillham's CITY OF WOMEN
Every now and then a
great book comes along that suffers from an extreme case of cover-itis. Case in
point, David R. Gillham's CITY OF
WOMEN. Examining the cover on the left, there's really not much to be
learned as to what the novel is about. At first glance, it looks like a non-descript
romance novel, plain and simple. There's no way to know when or where the book
is set and there's certainly nothing to indicate that the novel is Berlin Noir.
More importantly, there is nothing that
signifies the historical happenings it references. And that last bit is the
OF WOMEN is no pot-boiler. It becomes a frantic
page-turner at the end, but, starting out the novel takes its time and the
reader benefits from this. Gillham matches Philip Kerr at his best when it
comes to recreating the city of Berlin. As we are introduced to Sigrid, a
German woman in a loveless marriage, and her world, we are slowly immersed in
the Berlin of 1943. The city springs up around us with all its grime and
oppressiveness as the women left at home struggle to survive while their sons,
husbands and brothers go off to be butchered.
The plot itself is
deceptive. Sigrid has had an affair with a Jewish man who is in hiding from the
Gestapo. The affair is over but the memories linger and it's easy for the
reader to begin believing that CITY
OF WOMEN will be an intense character study of love found and love
lost. It is, and it's an extraordinary one. But the novel has some big tricks
up its sleeve. Pining for the past in a movie theater one evening, Sigrid is
met by a breathless girl who has found work in the building Sigrid lives in.
The girl is hiding from the Gestapo and needs Sigrid to cover for her when they
are confronted. Sigrid does so but the girl, Ericha, won't tell her what it's
all about. From here the novel returns to Sigrid moving zombie-like through her
life with her mother-in-law and the increasing frequency of the RAF's bombing
campaign of the city. A pregnant SS women moves into the building after the
previous occupant commits suicide in the wake of being denounced. Sigrid finds
a new lover and things continue on.
Until the novel takes
the first of many unexpected turns and the tension ratchets up. Sigrid soon
learns that Ericha is involved with an underground railroad protecting and
assisting Jews and others hunted by the Gestapo. Plagued by her conscience,
Sigrid joins this group and readers are treated to a riveting read as the novel
suddenly explodes into action. Twist, turns, double-crosses, close shaves and
melancholy abound in what is one of the best historical novels I've had the
pleasure to read.
I say this not only
because of the plot that keeps you guessing right up until the end, but also
because Gillham's incredibly vivid characterizations go hand in hand with his
recreation of the looks and feel of war-torn Berlin. The main characters come
across as three-dimensional human beings with complex motivations. There are
good people doing the right thing for both the right and wrong reasons. You
have bad people doing likewise. Nothing is cut and dried, black and white in
this complex and accurate depiction of what motivates us as human beings. Taken
altogether, CITY OF WOMEN has
But the book is not
quite done yet. The novel also sheds light on an aspect of life under Nazism
that the average reader may not be aware of. The railroad depicted in the novel
existed. Hundreds of Berliners, "Good Germans", risked their lives to
save those considered "undesirable" by the government. They could not
look away any longer and put their lives on the line to do something to fight the regime. Research has shown that by the
end of the war, there were more Jews still alive in Berlin than any city in
Germany. This fact has been lost in the mists of time as the occupying forces
too easily (and who can blame them then?) tarred all Germans with the same
CITY OF WOMEN shines the spotlight
on the forgotten heroism of those Berliners and does it with style, skill and
sheer storytelling. The novel is one of the best Berlin Noir books I've had the
pleasure to read and I hope readers will seek it out. HBO could do wonders with
the book should they ever choose to adapt it. The tale will keep you in your
seat and keep you reading. Bravo, Mr. Gillham!
Monday, July 8, 2013
A Review of
Phillip Kerr's A QUIET FLAME
The fifth Bernie Gunter mystery, A QUIET FLAME, picks up where the previous Bernie Gunther novel, THE ONE FROM THE OTHER, left off. In that book, Gunther is forced to ally himself with Nazis fleeing to Argentina and in FLAME we see him setting up in that tropical nest of vipers in 1950. He's got a false identity and is looking for a fresh start and as much peace as a man such as himself could hope for despite the company he's forced to keep.
However Gunther is not going quietly into that good night. Posing as Dr. Carlos Hauser, he soon comes under the attention of Argentinean dictator Juan Perón and his wife Evita who seek his perceived medical skills. Gunther has no choice but to reveal his real identity, which presents its own problem. Turns out the Buenos Aires police have a problem as well: a dead girl. The case bears striking similarities to one Gunther investigated in Berlin back in 1932. Given that so many Nazis have fled Germany to hide in South America, the idea is that the murderer who eluded Gunther in the 30s may be alive and well in Argentina like so many of his ilk. And so Gunther is back in harness and, oh, he's got cancer, too.
From here the novel moves back in forth between Berlin 1932 and Buenos Aires 1950 as Gunther tries to put the threads of both cases together. In the process we're treated to Kerr's uncanny eye for immersive, period detail, spot-on characterization and Gunther's ever-present and welcome cynical philosophizing. All of this makes for a great read, providing a window into the past. You start sweating as soon as Gunther steps off the boat into the tropical heat of Argentina. The Berlin sections are comparatively short but effortlessly drop you into the volatile time period as the Nazis are poised to seize power. My only knock is that the plot suffers slightly with all of these trappings and, ultimately, can't measure up to the skill Kerr has used to resurrect the past and how enjoyable it is for the reader to revisit this insidious, yet, endlessly fascinating time. A love interest with a case is thrown at Bernie to spice things up and is one of the better Gunther relationships in the series. Her case revolves around her missing relatives and points at a sinister chapter from the period.
Tuesday, July 2, 2013
A Review of Rebecca Cantrell's A CITY OF BROKEN GLASS
A CITY OF BROKEN GLASS is the fourth in Rebecca Cantrell's Hannah Vogel series set in Berlin of the 1930s. In this outing, the year is 1938 and we find Vogel, a reporter, in Poland to cover an event. With her adopted son in tow, she stumbles upon a Nazi secret: thousands of Jews of Polish heritage have been expelled from Germany and are being held by the Polish government in appalling conditions. Trying to do something about this gets her arrested by the Gestapo who try to smuggle her across the border. Her old lover, Lars, saves the day but they are forced to hide out in Berlin while they plan to leave for good.
But you can't keep the intrepid Vogel down. She wants to know who betrayed her to the Gestapo while investigating a murder and the case of a missing child. These plot elements should be the ingredients for a tense thriller that bookends with the Polish deportations leading Herschel Grynszpan to assassinate Ernst vom Rath and Krystallnacht which was the result. Sadly, the novel does not live up to the historical setting.
A CITY OF BROKEN GLASS is the second Vogel story I've read. I began with the first in the series, A TRACE OF SMOKE (to be reviewed here soon) so I came to the material with some expectations. In picking up the novel, I'd hoped that between books #1 and #4, the writing would have improved but this is not the case with A CITY OF BROKEN GLASS. Vogel is still more concerned about her love-triangle romance and her adopted son than the tide of history and this gets as old in this offering as it did in the first. The novel is researched but period details rarely appear in the sparsely written, screenplay like text. History truly takes a backseat to romantic triangles and motherhood. The title is misleading as well since Krystallnacht doesn't actually begin until the last 20 or so pages. There is an intriguing murder plot but this is left to the ol' "sudden revelation" near the end to break the case. Not surprising really as Vogel's love life is always more important than the rise of Nazism.