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Tuesday, January 28, 2014


A Review of Jonathan Rabb's THE SECOND SON

Jonathan Rabb's Berlin trilogy began with ROSA, continued with SHADOW AND LIGHT and wraps up with THE SECOND SON, which shifts the action from Berlin to the Spanish Civil War.

However the tale kicks off in Berlin. The year in 1936, the Olympics are about to begin, but Detective-Inspector Hoffner has problems. He's retiring from Kripo after decades of dedicated service. Now run by goons brought in to strong-arm the Nazi government's policies, Kripo isn't what it used to be and it's certainly not a place for a cop with Jewish heritage.

Hoffner cuts himself loose, retiring with full pension, before they can throw him out. All is not rosy in the detective's world. His eldest son, Sasha, has become a die-hard Nazi and they are no longer in contact with one another. Georg, his youngest, is in Spain as a photographer when war breaks out and the boy goes missing. All Hoffner has is Georg's young wife and his grandson left in Berlin and he soon turns his back on them in favor of searching through Spain for his missing son.

Once there, Hoffner gets caught up in the game or war. Shady characters abound, corrupt army officials, gun-runners, profiteers, and the quiet incursion of German forces and supplies injected into the mix in the hopes of affecting the outcome. And there might be more to Georg's presence in Spain than his father knew. Is Georg still alive? Can Hoffner save his own skin let alone his son's?

These questions drive the narrative which clearly creeps into Alan Furst territory with mostly enjoyable results. Rabb is great at creating a sense of place and turning that ability to a new canvas, Spain, his evocation of the locales rings true. You start to sweat by the second page and you'll be squinting into an imaginary sun by the time you finish the first section.

Rabb's plot also takes some interesting turns. And it's a good thing as the elements of the story show their age. The devil-may-care scoundrels, the female doctor trying to make a difference love interest for Hoffner in a world torn about. There's really nothing new here and experienced readers will have no trouble at all in untangling these simple story knots. The novel's pace also gets bogged down with endless exposition and characters explaining everything to each other. I found the thrust of the story was lost on me about halfway through and the search for the missing son, the needle in a very large haystack, gets sidetracked a bit too much.

Overall, THE SECOND SON is not a bad book. Rabb can write and it shows. Also, seeing Hoffner's journey being brought to an end in a satisfactory, and memorable, manner that lies outside the fence-straddling of many thrillers desperate to appeal to a mass audience is very refreshing. Rabb's characters make hard choices and must live with the consequences. In a world poised for a descent into hell, there are no pure happy endings. Hoffner and his loved ones walk that hard road for us and it's their humanity that shines through even when the blood flows.

THE SECOND SON holds up as a standalone novel though I would recommend the entire trilogy so you can fully appreciate the events of the third novel. ROSA, SHADOW AND LIGHT, and THE SECOND SON are not classics but they are good, solid reads that take chances. I recommend them all.

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