Thursday, January 19, 2012

{review} berlin

Pierre Frei Berlin (2003 [German]; tr. 2006)


Berlin is a high quality crime novel, which I'd recommend if you like historical crime fiction set in Germany (post-war in this case, unlike so many of the similar efforts around which riff on the 1930s).
It had been like that the first time, and it was the same whenever his craving grew too strong and there was only one way to satisy it: with a young, blonde, blue-eyed woman and a cattle chain.
Yes, Berlin is another serial-killer novel, but is raised above the usual beautiful-woman-hacked-to-death-with-nasty-sexual-angle by detailed characterisation of the characters and their settings. This is a book where you can smell and feel the brutalised post-war city. It is jammed packed full of details about the workings of the occupied city as the Germans and Americans attempt to liaise about what may or not be a serial killing crime-wave imported straight from the States with the military occupiers.

This could have been a very ordinary book, given the basic serial killer premise (indeed, if you know any German, the killer's identity doesn't take long to figure out). But what worked really well for me in this - very long - book was how Frei took one victim at a time and transported the reader back in time to the character's early life (and a nice chunk of 1930s' Germany as well) and her journey towards that moment when her path crossed with that of the killer. The victims come (um, briefly) alive in these biographies and it is a really effective means of ensuring that the apparent randomness of their murders evokes our full sympathy for rich lives cut brutally short. This is classy historical crime fiction.

There are many other threads which stitch this book together: the life of the German detective who has to figure out what is going on; the life of the American liaison officer as he falls for - you guessed it - a potential victim; and a quirky little strand about the the life of the son of the detective which should really be quite extraneous to the narrative but which manages both to add depth to the depiction of the city and to stitch up the plot. Incidentally, this youth is exactly the same age that Frei would have been in Berlin in 1945.  

A small[type] warning: Berlin is a big book and the writing is very, very small in the Atlantic Books paperback (2006). The font is hideously narrow. It was painful to read. Maybe this explains proof-reading slips such as would/wound, acused, fourth/forth.

Rating: not the most original of crimes, but the settings and characters push it to the next level. 7/10.

If you liked this... I am very sentimental about M. M. Kaye's Death in Berlin (1955) - a rather gentle post-war Berlin detective novel/romance.


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