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HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERon 2 February 2008
There are plenty of thrillers set in war-torn Berlin; my favourites are the Berlin Noir novels of Philip Kerr, and Winter by Len Deighton. This books falls somewhere between them -- it's not written with the literary brilliance of Philip Kerr but it is packed with masses of historical details about life in Hitler's Germany, and how people tried to survive in it.
Berlin uses a flashback device, which as the effect of splitting the historical biographies into stand-alone chunks. This is a little bit disorienting to start with, but allows the reader to enjoy the book in separate sections. If you don't have time to sit down and read it all in one or two big bites, then the structure lets you dip in and out of the clearly defined sections.
There are some faults with the translation, and sometimes I'm not sure that the exact sense of the German has been expressed in the English. Several of the characters morph into a blur, too; we learn all about the lives of different young German women and how they coped as their society disintegrated and it's not always possible to clearly distinguish them (doesn't help that the killer goes for the blonde hair, blue eyed type!).
However the plot romps along and there are enough interesting characters to keep your attention fully engaged. I didn't solve the mystery, and I did enjoy the subplot of the young lad whose journey to manhood is expressed in his desire to dress to impress. I rather suspect that's an autobiographical recollection from the author himself; Pierre Frei was a boy during the years he describes and maybe he was a youthful wheeler-dealer on the black market, too.
What really appealed about 'Berlin' is the level of detail dedicated to life in the city during Hitler's rule and afterwards, as it was carved up by the allies. There's no apology for the behavious of the nazis, but there is plenty to digest and understand about how a nation came to collaborate in the hideous behaviour of the holocaust.

Overall, it's probably less than four stars but more than three. The sexual encounters aren't particularly erotic although they are occasionally explicit. Similarly, the murder scenes are graphic but not titillating. It's not hard to read, well structured, very detailed and a decent page turner. I would look for other titles by this author but imagine this may be the only one he writes; a first novel at age 70 is some achievement.
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on 10 April 2013
The book starts with the discovery of a woman's body, & we meet the investigator, who is supposedly the protagonist, & a few members of his family, & some scene-setting on postwar Berlin. Then we're introduced to the killer's next victim, who has a lucky escape... And then suddenly we're treated to the first victim's life story. And I do mean life story - we go back to when she was a girl & follow her from there.

It's not even as if this does anything to connect the reader to her as while it goes on for so long, it still flits about too much to get any real sense of events, & she comes across too flat to see what she's really like as a person. I got 12% of the way into the book with most of it being the life story of some woman who I really couldn't find myself caring about with no sign of it switching back to the mystery any time soon, so I peeked at a few reviews on Goodreads to see if there'd be more of this, & when I saw there was I abandoned the book.

I get that it's trying to be a sprawling saga of Germany over the course of many years, but it's sold as a serial killer crime thriller, & it doesn't really work because it's trying to be different things & doesn't really work at either. It probably wouldn't be so bad if it was advertised accurately. A few descriptions make mention of things like "the stories of the victims themselves provide an absorbing commentary" & "an intimate portrait of Germany before, during, and after the war", but this can mean anything from 'the protagonist has a few flashbacks & pieces together the victim's pasts to solve the crimes' to... well, this.
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on 10 April 2013
I have just finished this. I never contemplated failing to finish it but cannot really say that I enjoyed it.

The good things: above all the stories of the women (I am not going to spoil any plots so don't worry). One genuinely gets a sense of the tragedy of murder with the victims seen as living, complex, contradictory people. Also the sense of Berlin immediately post war. And since all the stories span the period from 1933-ish to mid 1945, once gets a real sense of the journeys that people had to make through those dreadful years.

Less good, the coincidences and the reappearance of characters, perhaps an artifice to reduce the number of characters (the 'novel' resembling a collection of short stories in many ways) but if so it didn't work for me. Especially on a Kindle, which made it hard to cross reference (at least it did for me), I kept on thinking, 'I remember that person - or did I?'. And the minor characters - even secondary characters such as the police and the lovers - were too many and too often caricatures to be credible for me. (However the central women were strongly drawn).

And the plot - well I got the murderer about half way through. And how he came to be doing what he did.

Above all, I found the sex scenes really distasteful. Not that I am a particular prude or that I don't appreciate a good one but I found these nasty, too many, repetitive, offensive, gratuitous, ridiculous. Yuck.

So a very mixed bag. On balance I don't recommend it. But I did learn from reading it. However I am now pleased to have finished and to be able to move onto to something more substantial.
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on 27 March 2013
This is a strange book. The story itself is quite basic, but, as other reviewers have pointed out, what sets it apart is the emphasis on the victims lives, placing them squarely in the historical context of events leading up to the time in which the novel is set. I found these far more interesting than the serial killer plot (although unlike other readers I did not guess the identity of the killer, possibly because i was more wrapped up in the potted histories of the characters).

While the narrative is certainly unflinching, I did find there seemed to be a constant emphasis on violence towards women, even outwith the (sexually motivated) murders and I felt it was unnecessary to dwell on such things to this extent - even some of the non-violent sex scenes have a distinctly unpleasant feel about them. While I found this offputting I generally just skipped those sections, because other aspects of the book had hooked me enough to keep me reading.

The side story of the boy and his suit I found an amusing distraction and not much more, a nice way of ramping up tension while you waited to see how the main story progressed.

All in all, a good read if you are interested in the social and historical content of the book. As a straight thriller, it's not bad. I would consider other work by this author in the future, although I don't believe there is any available at present.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 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.
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on 14 April 2013
I bought this on a whim and am very glad I did. The basic story is pretty good - a serial killer operating in the American Sector of Berlin just months after the end of WWII, but it is the back stories of the victims that make this something special. Each victim is given a long chapter covering their lives from several years prior to the start of WWII right up to the moment of their death, and it is these chapters that give the book its depth, showing how the war changed these victims lives in so many ways, showing the growth of National Socialism in Germany in the 30's, the increasing anti-Semitism and belief in the Aryan as the only true race for Germany. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys stories set in and around WWII as well as those in to murder mysteries/police stories.
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on 30 June 2014
This book had me engaged from the first sentence, which is rare for me and gave an immediate sense of what Berlin must have been like at the time. The hopping backwards and forwards from postwar then pre was cleverly done as it didn't affect being able to keep up with the characters, even though there were many, and each likeable with interesting stories of their own. The amount of erotic content was a surprise but then probably necessary in context. Think I had the murderer sussed about half way through even though there was a red herring thrown in. Would recommend for a good story well told in a fascinating period and place.
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on 4 July 2014
There are so many stories in this book which makes it so interesting. After each murder the author tells you the life story of the victim. The murders take place just before, during and just after the second world war giving a detailed description of life in Berlin. All the girl's stories were so interesting and it taught me a lot about the war from the German point of view. A good thriller and a good history lesson. I will certainly read more of Pierre Frei's books.
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on 21 February 2013
It is Berlin summer 1945. A serial killer is preying on blonde German women. The author does not dwell on the murders as such. More attention is paid to the lives of the victims prior to their deaths. He reveals the hopes and dreams of these women before their lives were ended. In this way also he tells us what life was like at that time. We learn how different types of people were affected in different ways by the rise of the Nazis and the war. He explores the compromises that women had to make to build or try to build a life in a changed world. It is apparent that not everything has changed in this landscape - young women were not merely negotiating the new but still faced the old threats to their bodies and lives. Readers may want to look at the books of Philip Kerr and his fictional Berlin detective, Bernie Gunther. But this is a good book especially if you have an interest in that period.
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on 16 June 2014
i would reccomend this book to anyone that has an interest in the two world wars, before, during, and after.
the type of evil portyrayed has to be looked at as fiction with an abundance of true facts thrown in.
it is known that a lot of what happened in the taking of Berlin at the end of WW2 was reality and shows how evil men can be. An extremely well composed book with many a twist and turn. well done Pierre Frei.
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