Volker Kutscher: The March Fallen, trans. Niall Sellar, Sandstone Press.
A return to the German Literature Month reading with the most recent book in the Babylon Berlin series, although in this book there is far less of the Weimar decadence and much more of the ruthlessness of the Nazis. I have been captivated both by the books and by the TV series, although the adaptation is not 100% faithful to the books. Most interesting of all, the main protagonist, Gereon Rath, is a deeply flawed, often unlikeable individual, and it appears that the actor playing him may be more similar to the character than we might have expected.
February 1933 and the city of Berlin believes that Hitler and his rabble are only a passing fashion, and the upcoming elections will return things to normal. Charly and Gereon are about to get married (if you haven’t read the previous book in the series, as I hadn’t, then this might come as a bit of a surprise, so apologies for the spoilers), Charly is about to be promoted to the rank of inspector, but she is not happy at being sidelined in the Women’s CID, where the type of crimes they investigate are graffiti and runaway youths. Meanwhile, Gereon is part of a team investigating the murder of a homeless war veteran, who had been lying for several days unnoticed under the railway arches. Or at least, he was investigating that until the arson attack on the Reichstag, when he suddenly finds himself working alongside Hitler’s brownshirts to interrogate Communists.
Another war veteran, but of a higher social and military rank, Baron von Reddock, identifies the victim and claims that his own life might be in danger. For the victim, the baron and a few other soldiers all witnessed a nasty incident during the war and were involved in hiding some gold, which has since gone missing. The Baron has just written a book about it, which will be serialised in a newspaper, and he suspects that the man bent on killing them all is a Jewish captain who was believed to have died during the war.
With the anti-semitic feelings raging in Germany, the investigation turns into a manhunt rather than exploring all options. Gereon wants to keep his head down and not get involved in politics, but it is getting harder and harder to sit on the fence. Charly, with her far keener sense of justice, is suffering so much in her division, hearing all her female colleagues praise the Führer, that she takes sick leave, and uses that time to try and track down a young orphan girl who is said to be a lunatic after setting fire to a homeless shelter. She too seems to be targeted by the killer.
As you can imagine, the case itself is full of twists and turns, but what is most interesting about this book is to see that people whom Charly and Gereon considered friends have suddenly sided with the Nazis, whether for personal gain or because they genuinely believe in their ideology. Although Gereon does not stomach the Nazis any more than Charly does, he is equally sceptical about the Communists and believes that the messy democracy of the Weimar is to blame for the rise of Hitler and his party.
Much like Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, this is well-researched historical crime fiction with a moral compass and a bite, revealing how difficult it is for the ‘masses’ to even realise the dangerous road they are about to be led on.
Sometimes Charly felt as if Berlin had been full of people just waiting for this government who were now, suddenly, revealing their true colours. As if the whole time somewhere deep under this city there had been another, darker Berlin that was seeping upwards like sewage rising in the street. That wasn’t true, of course, it was the same people inhabiting the same Berlin. The new government simply had a talent for bringing out the worst in its citizens.
I absolutely love this series, but it is in danger of not being translated any further. Sandstone Press were crowdfunding for the translation and publication of the next novel Lunapark, which takes place in 1934. Sadly, they were unable to reach their funding goal, so work on this novel has been cancelled (or, hopefully, postponed). As a small indie publisher of translated crime fiction, I can fully empathise with this tricky situation.