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Ultimately More Wearying than Entertaining
on 18 March 2009
As a big fan of Phillip Kerr's "Berlin Noir" series, I'm always interested to read more crime fiction set in Weimar-era and wartime Germany. This 1927-set crime novel also features the German film industry, which is another interest of mine, so it seemed totally up my alley. Things kick off when Berlin police chief inspector Nikoli Hoffner is sent out to the UFAstudio's campus to investigate a suicide. From the very start, I couldn't shake the feeling that there was some larger backstory to Hoffner that I had missed out on. And that, indeed, is the case: Hoffner was the protagonist of Rabb's earlier book, Rosa. That helps to explain a great deal of my dissatisfaction with Hoffner's character and some of the plot points, and so I would strongly recommend reading Rosa before picking this up.
This book is filled to the rim with intricate plotting based partly on the real-life "Phoebus Affair", as the murder leads Hoffner into a very confusing stew of industrial espionage, sexual debauchery and blackmail, the early days of National Socialism, and Berlin's dirty underbelly of gangsters, junkies, and thugs (not to mention cameos by Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, Joseph Goebbels, and Alfred Hugenberg). Various corpses continue to appear along the way, as Hoffner stolidly picks away at the various strands that ultimately lead back to the Treaty of Versailles. Mixed up in all this is a sharp-tongued American dame of mysterious motives, whom Hoffner finds himself drawn to. There's also a running subplot involving Hoffner's strained attempts to connect with his two sons, one a teenager working at UFA, the other, a protege of Goebbels.
While I was immersed in the dark moody world Rabb is able to bring to life, the story never quite coalesced into anything I could really grab a hold of. Alan Furst's novels of espionage capture the same tone, but are able to bring more solid storytelling to the fore. Here, the plotlines wander around bumping into each other, but by the end it's not clear what the point of it all is. (Nor is it at all clear in some cases how Hoffner makes various deductive leaps.) And as mentioned earlier, some key relationships (such as that between Hoffner and the gangster Alby Pimm, or Hoffner and his sons) are rather cryptic unless one has already read Rosa. It doesn't help that everyone speaks to each other in very clever banter that is entertaining to read, but feels more of the movies than real life. By the end, the book's channeling of Furst, Kerr, Isherwood's Berlin Novels, and The Maltese Falcon left me a more wearied than entertained.