Friday, June 9, 2017

Review of Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher (Sandstone Press, 2016)

Berlin, 1929. After a shooting incident that the press will not drop, Detective Inspector Gereon Rath has been transferred from Cologne to the capital facilitated by his well-connected father. He’s placed in the Vice Squad, but has ambitions to transfer to the Homicide Division. When a Russian searching for the former resident of Rath’s apartment is dragged out of a canal, Rath sees an opportunity to impress his new bosses. Running his own parallel investigation in secret he is soon in over his head grappling with the underworld, Russian emigres, and Nazi sympathizers and organizers, none of whom are happy with Rath asking awkward questions, and rubbing his new colleagues up the wrong way. And to complicate matters, the communists are using May Day to foment unrest. If Rath isn’t careful he’ll wind up dead rather than a hero.

Babylon Berlin is the first book in the Gereon Rath series set in Berlin. The book takes place in 1929. The city is a cauldron of political unrest with the communists, social democrats and Nazis vying for power, and a bohemian lifestyle rubs shoulders with Prussian values and a criminal underworld thriving in the aftermath of the First World War and hyper-inflation. Kutscher captures something of the place and times through the investigation of Inspector Rath as he tries to identify a man who has been tortured and dumped in a canal and to locate his missing friend. The plot is reasonably complex involving a fairly large cast of characters and a handful of intersecting threads and it takes a bit of work to track them all. The main shortcomings of the story are, however, that the central plotline seems somewhat far-fetched, the plot is kept moving forward by an endless succession of plot devices, there’s a fair amount of telegraphing that removes some of the mystery and tension, and Rath isn’t particularly a likeable character with his scheming and dubious morals (and like his girlfriend I soon tired of his antics). The result is a story with plenty of action, but lacks realism and credibility, and could have benefitted from the maxim less is more.

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