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Sunday, December 3, 2017

BERLIN BUFFET

A Review of Volker Kutscher's The Silent Death

I should preface this review by stating for the record that I don't like serial killer fiction. Sure, I fell under the spell of Silence of the Lambs just like everyone else and still love that movie. But the tsunami of serial killer fiction that resulted from the success of the movie (and books) has completely turned me off the sub-genre. I just wanted to mention that up front before we get to the review. Now on with the show.

In case you haven't guessed it by now, The Silent Death, Volker Kutscher's  second entry in his best selling Gereon Rath series, gives us the hunt for a serial killer in Berlin in early 1930. The book kicks off with the gruesome death of a film star on the set of her new film - a talkie. The film industry is making the transition from silent films to sound productions and the not so friendly competition between film companies gets thrown in the mix here. With spies in both camps, the death of Betty Winter is quickly put down as a result of the spying and sabotage reaching deadly levels.

But then another actress disappears, and another.

Is a serial killer stalking the Berlin film industry? Not really
necessary to play coy with this at this point. The answer is yes.

What follows is a mixed bag. I don't think it's fair for me to delve too deeply into the serial killer aspect of the plot. I'm sick to death of such stories and thus cannot fairly comment on how it plays out here. If you're a fan of such fiction, you should be on solid ground here. Let's leave it at that.

As for the rest of the novel, Kutsher presents us with something of a buffet. And with mixed results. There is WAY too much going on in this novel - both related to his work and in his personal life. These multiple plot lines bog down the book. We are treated to Rath breaking up with his current girl friend, re-uniting with his previous love interest, he gets a dog with the prerequisite clich├ęs attached to such story lines, his father wants him working on the side on a case with political implications, one of his old friends is visiting. In short, Rath is all over the place here and the book suffers as a result. After an impressive debut in Babylon Berlin, this second outing left me flat. From main plot to endless subplots, the book became a slog to finish. Well, as they say, you've got your whole life to write your first book and six months to write your second. I don't know if that's the case with The Silent Death but it sure reads this way.

So much for the bad. As he did in Babylon Berlin, Kutscher excels in period details. The book is set in 1930 and you can see the Nazi influence building via the goings on at the funeral for Horst Wessel. The novel is steeped in period detail that never seems shoe-horned in or gets anywhere near info dump levels. I don't know if the massive amount of historical nuggets result from Kutscher being German and thus having access to materials non-German speaking writers might miss in their research or whether or not Kutscher is just very very good at what he does, but the period details are always interesting, precise and vivid. Again, as such details are never obtrusive, it's always a treat to come upon one while reading.

The Silent Death is a novel ripe for those who just enjoy getting involved in the lives of its characters. Plot driven it is not. This reader prefers the focus to be on the plot - especially when one is dealing with a police procedural. If you fall into the first category and enjoy fiction based in this time period, you'll most likely enjoy the book more than I did. If you're in the latter, the novel will most likely disappoint. It's not a terrible novel, rather, it suffers from trying to be too good and too much. I'm hoping the 3rd in the series will get an English translation as I'd like to give Kutscher a chance to get back on track. Put this one in the middle third of Berlin Noir fiction. Better than most but not quite as good as the best the genre has to offer.