This collected volume (issues 9-16) starts off with a dream sequence as it introduces a new group of characters. They are the 'Cocoa Kids', an American jazz band who are touring Europe. This marks an addition to the themes of the previous volume (City of Stones). With the Cocoa Kids arrival the cultural and social life of Berlin takes a more central role than in previous stories. Whilst it does add to the scale, and highlights the meticulous research once again, it is not without some problems.
For me, the individual characters of the band never quite come to life. The dialogue and characterisation can be quite sparse and flat. It is though Mr. Lutes was aiming for a realistic depiction of black musicians and their experiences in Berlin but in the process missed a vital something. Often I thought their relevance was more to highlight the intrinsic racist elements of a society heading towards fascism, rather than as individuals with their own story. An example of where it does work on its own terms is a delightful scene where the band meets the scintillating Josephine Baker. This is sharply written and comic.
The depiction of music in written and drawn forms is a challenge for the artist and the reader. Unless you are a dedicated fan of American jazz bands of the era; some of the scenes with the band playing are hard to decipher in terms of what is being played and why it creates such an impact on the audience. Perhaps a footnote on the inspiration might have helped a little.The denouement of the band's story in this volume also feels a little too contrived.
Where it all does come satisfyingly together is in the contrasting stories of the post-May Day massacre, which the previous book ended on, and the Berlin nightlife of drugs, gender play and sex. With the nightlife the book dives into scenes that are adjacent to Christopher Isherwood's Berlin years. Marthe Müller's introduction to the hedonistic world of drugs and sex and private clubs is depicted quite clearly (eroticism yes, pornography no). And yet nothing is quite how it seems under the guiding hand of the oh so archly world-weary Margarethe von Falkensee. This provides a heightened contrast to the story of Silvia Braun who is living on the streets after the death of her mother. Silvia's introduction to Pavel, a Jewish man making a living off scrap scavenging, leads to two of the most poignant scenes in the book and the foreshadowing of what will happen in later years.
Th glitter and the grime are well-matched. The tension in this volume has been raised admirably. I can't help but recommend it for its power and what it achieves over and above any flaws.