Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Review of A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell (Forge, 2009)

I’ve read a few novels recently either set at the end of Weimar Republic or during the Second World War in Germany. A Trace of Smoke fits into the former category taking place in Berlin in early 1931, the year Hitler took power. It follows crime reporter, Hannah Vogel’s attempt to find out how and why her younger brother, Ernst, a cross-dressing, nightclub singer, was stabbed in the heart and thrown naked into the Spree, and to identify the killer. Vogel initially spots her brother’s picture on The Hall of the Unnamed Dead in the main police station in Berlin where she goes every Monday to source fresh stories. She is unable, however, to involve the police because she has loaned her own and Ernst’s identity cards to her Jewish best friend so that she and her son can travel to and gain entry to the United States in order to start a new life. Whilst Hannah is seeking Ernst’s killer, others are frantically seeking Ernst’s whereabouts, and the situation is confused further by the arrival at Hannah’s doorstep of a five year old boy, Anton, whose birth certificate lists his father as Ernst and her as his mother. Unsure who to trust, Hannah continues to pick away at the case, coming to realise that the truth lies in the upper echelons of the Nazi party, but exposing it will put her own and Anton’s future in jeopardy.

Somewhat surprisingly I struggled through A Trace of Smoke. I’ve been thinking about why as it has many of the ingredients that I normally like - good historical context and sense of place, an interesting plot, and a good mix of distinctive characters. After a bit of reflection, I think there are four reasons. First, I found the writing a little flat and pedestrian. Second, the dialogue really didn’t work for me – it’s too formal and stilted. There are very little, if any, colloquialisms, slang, hesitations or stumblings, swearing or personal inflections, and the style of the dialogues doesn’t vary across characters or situations. Third, the book seemed to try and blend romance/cosy with noir, two sub-genres that I think are always destined to make awkward bedfellows. Fourth, I’ve never been a great fan of first person narratives, especially when they try and voice feelings, emotions, automatic reactions and so on. So much of what we do in life is instinctive and habitual, and is rooted in the subconscious, taking place beyond our conscious awareness. We can post-hoc try to rationalise it, but we do not do so at the time. That’s why I think I prefer to read what characters do and say, rather than what they think. People rarely consciously think in stressful situations, they react, and why should it be any different for fiction characters? For me, if first person narratives are to work, then they need to either avoid the conscious voicing of the subconscious or be very subtle in how this voicing occurs. A Trace of Smoke has an explicit voice that I just couldn’t buy into. That all said, and as I’ve already noted, the story is interesting and I think A Trace of Smoke will appeal to many readers and it’s certainly been well reviewed elsewhere. I enjoyed the story, I just struggled with how it was told, and despite all my reservations I would be curious to know what happens to Hannah and Anton next.


Uriah Robinson said...

I rated this book a lot higher than you and was interested in your comment about the dialogue. I just think that people in the 1930s, and especially Germans with their ordered society were much more formal and stilted in their speech patterns. The speech patterns in the Bernie Gunther books are much more informal because he usually is mixing with a different strata of the population and cops always have their own slang.
I will be reviewing the sequel as soon as the ARCs are sent out.

Rob Kitchin said...

Uriah, there are characters across classes, backgrounds and settings in the book, although I agree that many were of a certain class, and I just don't buy that they all spoke so formally or without hesitations or changing what they were going to say mid-flow, etc. I know my rating is out of line with many other reviewers, but it just didn't click for me in the telling. No problem with the story. I guess sometimes, books click and other times they don't. As I said in the review, I was surprised this didn't as it has many of the ingredients that I like.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Rob and Uriah, I'm Elizabeth Evans, Rebecca Cantrell's agent. I'm thrilled you read and reviewed the novel. I've enjoyed hearing your responses to the storytelling, the dialogue in particular. Rebecca and I discussed many of these issues while preparing the book for publication.

I hope you will enjoy the sequel, A Night of Long Knives. ARCs are coming soon and it pubs next May. I think the sequel is even better than the first. It goes at a breakneck pace and the stakes are higher than ever. Thanks again and all best, Elizabeth

Rob Kitchin said...

Hi Elizabeth, thanks for the comment and for the heads up about Rebecca's next book. As I said in the review I'm curious to see what happens to Hannah and Anton next, and although I did have some issues with the book I thought the story was interesting. Great that you think the second book is stronger and I'm always a fan of books that go at a breakneck speed.