Monday, May 16, 2016

Review of The Murderer in Ruins by Cay Rademacher (Arcadia 2015, German 2011)

Hamburg, 1947.  The destroyed city is overseen by the British and in the grip of a freezing winter.  Shelter, food and fuel are scarce and the black market is thriving.  Chief Inspector Frank Stave, a career policeman who didn't join the Nazi party, is mourning the death of his wife in the fire storm of 1943 and searching for his teenage son, who left for Berlin in the dying days of the war and has not been seen since.  When the body of a naked young woman is found in the rubble, Stave is asked to head up the case and assigned the help of his colleague Maschke from the vice squad, and Lieutenant MacDonald from the British military.  Soon after, the naked body of an old man is discovered.  It seems as if there’s a serial killer at work.  There are no clues as to who the victims are or why they’ve been murdered and Stave struggles to make any headway as the pressure to find the perpetrator grows and the temperature plummets.

The Murderer in Ruins is the first book in a trilogy following the work of Chief Inspector Frank Stave in post-war Hamburg.  The tale does a good job of situating the reader in the apocalyptic and freezing landscape of the city, filled with people struggling to make ends meet, find missing relatives, and to rebuild their lives.  Stave is one of them, haunted by his dead wife, searching for his missing son, and struggling to solve a handful of murders.  Rademacher provides a sympathetic and engaging portrayal of his lead character, and populates the tale with other interesting characters.  Where the book struggles, however, is with respect to its plot.  There are too many elements that do not add up – a major murder spree is being investigated by a team of three and one secretary as opposed a large dedicated team of inspectors, sergeants, constables; the murder book goes missing and Stave does nothing about it; a witness very clearly signals evidence and Stave ignores it – and there are a couple too many plot devices.  Moreover, the ending is well telegraphed.  The result is a tale that has a good sense of place and time and an interesting set of characters, but felt somewhat clunky and staged at times.

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