Top positive review
5 people found this helpful
Intriguing, Sinister & Gripping
on 18 March 2013
Berlin, 1940, and Kurt Muller finds the body of one of his co-workers, Kleister, slumped at his work station in the Communications Unit of the Abwehr. He supposedly committed suicide, but Muller is not convinced and the police (ORPO) do not seem interested in carrying out a thorough investigation. He takes it on himself to consult the head of his section about his concerns, but not only are his ideas dismissed, but also reported to Muller's uncle - Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the RSHA (Reich Security Headquarters, incorporating the ORPO, KRIPO, Gestapo, SD & SS). Muller's life is further complicated when he meets Gudrun von Sommerfeld, who seems to know quite a bit about him and makes a big impression on the young Berliner.
After having been arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, and released thanks to his powerful uncle, Muller is then promoted to work with the Enigma and TypeX coding systems in the Translations Unit on his uncle's recommendation. He is not there long before he is given a further promotion to run Germany's agents in Ireland - his mother's home country. But Muller can't leave it alone. He becomes more and more convinced that Kleister was murdered - most likely by his old boss, Drobol, because of an uncoded signal that passed through his hands from Leipzig - where there has been another murder disguised as suicide.
Full of intrigue and conspiracy, 'The Black Orchestra' builds a sinister picture of life for the average Berliner in the 1940s, and shows an officious hierarchy that stretches into every walk of life. To survive, people need to keep their heads down, be very careful what they say and who they say it to, and do not do anything to be noticed.
JJ Toner offers some wonderful descriptions, one of my favourites is: 'copious moustache of the old style that merged with bushy sideburns to cover most of his face.' and one of the moist poignant describes fingers as 'two bunches of knuckle and bone held together by skin.' I could not get the images of concentration camp victims out of my head, despite the description being of a Berlin police officer.
There are also some wonderful descriptions of Berlin the city - in particular Unter den Linden, and the Tiergarten - 'majestic boulevards flanked by rows of mature trees' which contrasts remarkably with the sinister aspects of everyday life there in 1940. As the daughter of a Berliner, the city holds a special place in my heart, despite some of its history, and JJ Toner's descriptions absolutely do Berlin justice.
The beauty and majesty of the city also serve to highlight the horrors of life there during World War II - the people are scared, and with good reason. Berlin is not safe for anyone who does not toe the Nazi party line. This makes Kurt Muller's investigations even more admirable and important. Only a few chapters in and I was terrified for him, whilst urging him on.
Very well written, well-paced, intriguing, sinister, disturbing and gripping, 'The Black Orchestra' is an excellent historical novel, tackling an extremely emotive and horrific part of European history. If you liked Ken Follet's 'Winter of the World', you will love 'The Black Orchestra'. It has it all: a totalitarian society, murder, conspiracy, constant danger, a mysterious and slightly sinister love interest and a likeable, honourable and slightly naive main character with depth. Muller not only uncovers the truth about his colleague's murder, but also about his uncle - Heydrich - and the Nazi government and it was a pleasure to join him on his journey, albeit from the safety and comfort of my own home.