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Sexual serial killer meets historical novel in wartime Berlin
on 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.