Monday, May 11, 2015

Review of Rosa by Jonathan Rabb (Halban, 2005)

1919 and German is in political turmoil after the end of the First World War, a socialist revolution threatening to transform the state and society.  Detective Inspector Nikolai Hoffner of the Berlin Kripo has other things to worry about -- a serial killer is preying on women, killing them and leaving an elaborate carved pattern on their backs.  The fifth victim, however, radically changes the case.  It was widely believed that Rosa Luxemburg, one of the leaders of the socialist uprising, had been killed by an angry mob.  The pattern on her back suggests a different course of events.  Not long after her body is discovered it is claimed by Polpo, the political police, but not before Hoffner starts to realise not all is as it appears.  While the evidence suggests Rosa was the victim of a madman, Hoffner smells a political conspiracy and he’s determined to discover what really happened regardless of the price to be paid. 

The first instalment in Rabb’s Berlin trilogy featuring Kripo detective, Nikolai Hoffner, Rosa has a lot going for it -- a complex and compelling lead character, a strong sense of place and time, a noir atmosphere, evocative prose, and an engaging plot.  Hoffner is a gruff, tough and savvy detective who doesn’t mind stepping on toes and whose moral compass is not always well set.  Rabb surrounds him with a set of well penned characters, including his somewhat naive assistant, Hans Fichte, the child office runners in Kripo, his long suffering wife and children, the sinister members of Polpo, the political police, and the ghostly presence of Rosa Luxemburg.  He places all of these in the dark, uncertain and claustrophobic landscape of Berlin, with its inequalities, poverty and shortages of food and goods, and its political tensions, street battles and unstable state.  The plot mixes together an investigation into the work of a serial killer and a high-level political conspiracy, creating a strong hook that drives the narrative along.  However, while the plot is compelling, it is also rather fanciful which after a while starts to undermine the credibility of tale.  Nonetheless, the tension and intrigue holds the story together until the end.  Overall, a strong start to the trilogy.

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