One of the joys of reviewing is the occasional discovery of a new author and even a relatively new publisher who you hope, on first showing, will go on to much greater things. And thus it is with Herr Kutschner and his Scottish publisher. The author will be no news to the German crime fiction reader who first came across this title as long ago as 2007, and have had the opportunity to read the four books which make up the Gereon Rath series thus far. And if you like Babylon Berlin has much as I did, the intolerably bad news is that you must wait until next year for the next title, and who knows how much longer for the others.
Babylon Berlin covers the fading years of the Weimar Republic in German, a period of extreme politics and equally extreme decadence both of which feature prominently in the life of Gereon Rath, a young police detective recently transferred from the relative quiet of Cologne to the minefield that is Berlin. It happens to be favourite territory of yours truly and over the years I have happily devoured the many crime fiction chronicles of this period from the likes of Philip Kerr, David Downing and Jonathan Rabb. But this is the first I have encountered from a German author. From the outset it is remarkable both for its extensive research and for its close to the ground noir and gritty feel.
Gereon has been seconded to the Berlin vice squad but hopes for a swift promotion to the more traditional and prestigious Criminal section. Should he so aspire there is also a Political branch. His chance to impress comes when he is investigates the death of a supposed drug gang victim in a car which has crashed through barriers and into a canal. But the death is by no means straightforward. The victim was hardly capable of driving the car into the canal as his hands had been broken by a remorseless bout of torture. Apart from that he was dead before the car went into the canal. But while he wants to impress his superiors by solving the murder he also has to be careful not to tread on any toes, or to appear too pushy. As well as wanting to impress his bosses Gereon is also out to impress the young and beautiful Charlotte Ritter, a stenographer in the criminal department who also doubles as an investigator when the opportunities arise.
But Berlin, being Weimar Berlin, there is a wide variety of crime to keep Gereon busy. There’s the pornography studio the vice squad raid, featuring male porn stars who are doppelgangers for Bismark, the Kaiser and other Prussian notables. The other perennial problem is the political situation. May Day is fast approaching, with the prospect of huge Communist Party demonstrations emerging from the red ghettos into the city thoroughfares. The Socialist city council and Police Commissioner choose to trim the communists’ sails by banning the May Day celebrations and inevitably the demonstrations deteriorate into running battles between demonstrators and police. Gereon has little time for the communists but nor does he share the emerging national socialist loyalties of many of his colleagues.
The political scene is further complicated by the factionalism of the Berlin crime consortia which likewise leach into the police and the political organisations. But now the local criminal fraternities are also threatened by the intrusion of Russian rivals driven abroad by the new Russian Soviet. Just to add more spice there are rumours of a gold shipment belonging to a wealthy Russian émigré family which has been smuggled out of the Soviet Union and attracts the attention of Trotsky’s supporters who see it as the means to carry out the armed overthrow of Stalin and also the national socialist sympathisers in the police who want the gold to pave the Nazi road to power in Germany. Just for good measure the crime syndicates also want a slice of the gold.
It is all a strong and heady brew which never oversteps itself by a descent into the implausible. That’s maybe because the Weimar Republic offered so many possibilities that there was so little room left for anything at all implausible. The political structure was totally fragmented offering equal scope for socialists, communists and fascists. The economy was buggered, a result of the costly war and the brutal reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, so the black market was effectively the only market.
So does Gereon solve any of the crimes which confront him? What does he do about the corruption that exists even among his colleagues? Does he get the promotion he wants so much? Does he manage to win over the delightful Charlotte? And even if he does achieve all that, does it “amount to a hill of beans” in the crazy world that was Babylon Berlin? I am dying to know where the conclusion of this book will leave Gereon Rath.
My impatience provides a good measure of how much I enjoyed Babylon Berlin.