Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review of The Sleepwalkers by Paul Grossman (St Martins Press, 2010)

The tail end of 1932, the dying gasp of the Weimar Republic, and a young woman is found on the bank of the Havel river on the outskirts of Berlin, her legs horrible deformed.  Detective Inspector Willi Kraus, a highly decorated war hero, the most famous homicide detective in the Berlin police force and a Jew, starts to investigate her death.  Almost immediately the case starts to attract political interference and attempts are made to divert Kraus, first through misdirection then with him being asked to investigate the disappearance of a Bulgarian princess who seemingly sleepwalked out of the Adlon Hotel and into the night.  When Kraus discovers links between the two cases, attention is focused on his competence and Jewishness.  Using his own high-level political contacts and influential friends, as well as those on the street, Kraus tries maintain his investigation, but elements of the emerging Nazi regime are determined to halt his progress as they edge nearer to assuming power.  As he struggles on, Kraus becomes convinced that exposing whatever lies at the heart of the case will destroy Hitler’s ambitions, but it might also cost him his life.

The Sleepwalkers is a police procedural thriller where a cunning and connected Jewish detective takes on the upper echelons of the newly formed and secretive SS.  It’s a nice premise and certainly makes for a page-turner as Kraus does his best to expose the dark secret that led to death of the woman found on the bank of the Havel river.  The sense of place and time is good, with Grossman effectively conveying the uncertainties, confusion, paranoia and culture of the dying days of the Weimar Republic, and the rising anti-Semitism and the bloody clashes and power struggles between political factions on the streets of Berlin.  The characterization is generally okay, though a couple of characters didn’t quite ring true or were defined by status rather than personality.  At one level the plot works well, with a strong hook, political intrigue, personal rivalries and a nice build-up to a tense climax.  At another level, it’s all a bit too contrived and the history is muddled.  I found it difficult to buy into the sleepwalking element: it left a massive trail that is covered over by one of Kraus’ colleagues in missing persons being inept beyond belief (it simply would have been more credible to snatch them).  As Grossman notes himself in the author notes, he has fiddled with the historical narrative, moving one event forward four years, another a decade.  There’s really very little need for it other than to create a huge conspiracy for Kraus to try and uncover, especially given all the atrocious things the Nazis did (even in 1932/33).  Overall then, The Sleepwalkers is a gripping page turner and if you like your police procedurals to be thrillers with a capital T and don’t mind a contrived plot then you’ll thoroughly enjoy the book.  Personally, I enjoyed the read, but felt the issues noted above undermined the credibility of the story.   

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