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Less Than the Sum of Its Parts
on 21 December 2006
I should state right up front that I'm not a fan of serial killer stories, I don't find them particularly interesting, and had I known that the framework for this book is the hunt for a serial killer, I may well not have picked it up. The reason I did pick it up is because the setting is one that interests me. From the brilliant film "The Third Man" to Nobel laureate Heinrich Boll's "literature of the rubble", post-WWII is rich with dramatic possibilities. Here, the American occupied sector is the backdrop for a serial killer and as the ending for the stories of several women's lives. Although the framing device is the hunt for a madman, the book's real value and interest come in the intervening chapters, each of which acts as a 40-80 page novella about a German woman coming of age before the war, and what she does to survive it. In that regard, the book makes for very lively and readable social history.
Unfortunately, the structure robs the narrative of any potential suspense and makes for rather choppy reading. Contemporary chapters concerning the hunt for the serial killer alternate with each victim's lengthy backstory in a way that makes it very hard to keep track of all the various German and American characters. And since each of the victims is introduced at her death, the flashback life story that immediately follows is overlain with an oppressive sense of impending tragedy. Especially as in each case, the woman is killed on the very night her life seems to have finally turned the corner for the better.
These women include a village farmgirl turned actress, a middle-class nurse, a slum-dweller turned upscale prostitute, a horse-riding aristocrat, and a bookshop assistant, each carefully constructed to show a different aspect of German society. Along the way we get glimpses into the film industry, the upper crust of society, a concentration camp, a racial hygiene center, the foreign ministry, the French resistance, and of course, the Allied occupation, replete with Soviet mass rape and Americans handing out candy. Through the women's stories, we get a panoramic view of pre-war Germany which seems to mostly consist of people not taking the Nazis very seriously. Sure, there are plenty of supporting characters who get out early, and others who get in on the ground floor early, but the general sentiment is one of naivety -- which smacks of a certain amount of wishful remembrance. Frei grew up in Berlin in the '30s and '40s, and the rascally teenage boy who opens the book by finding a dead body, closes the book by loosing his virginity, and spends the intervening time scrounging and scamming to buy a snazzy suit is likely semi-autobiographical.
In any event, when the killer and his motivations are finally revealed it's all rather underwhelmingly banal. Of course, the story of beautiful blonde young women getting senselessly brutalized by a madman acts as a metaphor for Germany brutalized by Nazi rule, but it's not a particularly elegant or sophisticated metaphor. Aside from the structural problems undermining the entire work, the book is additionally marred by some truly hilarious descriptions of sex and the tendency to make significant and awkward jumps in time between paragraphs with no cue for the reader. I'm tempted to recommend reading just the chapters with women's names as titles for the social history within, for Frei has a nice eye for detail and description, and does a good job of making the scene come alive. But it's a very marginal recommendation, as the women's lives tend to devolve into melodrama, and the serial killer framework never really works.