Berlin by night, 1930s? Street view,
The late Philip Kerr had his Bernie Guenther series. Ben Pastor has Martin Bora. Now we have Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath character as an addition to the German civilian police/military police genre that depicts Berlin in the 1930s, crimes during World War II as well as the Cold War. Kutscher has followed up his BABYLON BERLIN with the second in his Rath series entitled THE SILENT DEATH where he continues the exploits and personal journey of a flawed Berlin detective who has a very unorthodox approach to police work, much to the chagrin of the higher ups in the Berlin Police Department. As with the work of Kerr and Pastor, Kutscher takes the reader inside the thought process and life experiences of his protagonist in a meaningful way injecting outside influences on criminal investigation be it the role of the Gestapo, the SS, or as in THE SILENT DEATH Berlin in the 1930s with the Weimar Republic teetering on the edge, as the rise of the Nazi Party proceeds quite rapidly with all it engenders.
Berlin Inspector Rath has a checkered past. He had been on the police force in Cologne, but an incident forced his relocation to Berlin as his father a police director in Cologne arranged his transfer. He employs a “lone ranger” approach to police work and has little respect for those above him in the police hierarchy. He is an engaging character who must survive in an atmosphere that seems to change every day. Kutscher does a superb job conveying to the reader what Rath is up against as the noise from Nazi murders, crimes, and demonstrations form the background of daily life in Berlin in an addition to his own intemperate ways, i.e., “punching out” Deputy Inspector Frank Brenner for making fun of his last girlfriend, Charlotte Ritter who he was deeply in love with.
Kutscher has created an interesting plot line focusing in on the German movie industry as it seems to be moving away from “silent films” to “talkies.” The problem is that there are producers and directors who do not see the new “talkies” approach as progress and may be involved in trying to sabotage the new type of film. Enter Betty Winter, a silent film actress who is about to make her first talkies film when suddenly she is felled by a lighting system during the filming of her latest movie. She is crushed and dies from the flames – was it sabotage or was it an accident?
Rath is called in to investigate but soon runs out of favor with his superior, Detective Inspector Wilhelm Bohm, a stereotypical Prussian type who will remove him from the investigation of Winter’s death. Rath refuses to allow Bohm to impede his investigation and continues his work. It seems that sabotage may have gone awry as Heinrich Bellman, a producer who worked with Winter is up against Manfred Oppenberg another producer who is in competition over the new genre. As this progresses, Oppenberg’s star Vivian Franck disappears and it is up to Rath to find her. This competition forms the first thread that Kutscher develops.
The second thread involves Konrad Adenauer, the Mayor of Cologne. Rath’s father Engelbert travels to Berlin to introduce his son to Adenauer who seeks his help. It seems that Adenauer is being blackmailed over certain investments and financial transactions centered in Berlin involving the transfer of a Ford Motor plant to Cologne. In addition to taking on this task for his father, Rath must deal with his removal from the Winter case and being tasked to deal with the Horst Wessel case. Horst Ludwig Georg Erich Wessel, commonly known as Horst Wessel, was a Berlin leader of the Nazi Party’s stormtroopers, the Sturmabteilung. After his murder in 1930, he was made into a martyr for the Nazi cause by Joseph Goebbels. Wessel is an interesting character who has the dubious distinction to having the official anthem of the Nazi Party dedicated to him. Wessel in reality is murdered by Ali Hohler, the former pimp of the whore Wessel is involved with. But for Goebbles, a master of “fake news” and propaganda it was a situation that he would take full advantage of.
As in the Wessel case, Kutscher has an excellent command of German history, a case in point is the death of Gustav Ernst Stresemann the German statesman who served as Chancellor in 1923 and Foreign Minister 1923–1929, during the Weimar Republic. He was co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926 and his death brought about the end for any hope for the success of the Weimar Republic.
The last thread that permeates the novel is Rath’s attempts to navigate the intricacies of surviving the Berlin police bureaucracy and leadership embodied in Wilhelm Bohm. There are many fascinating characters that Kutscher develops including movie stars, producers, politicians, and gangsters. The book itself is a gripping read from the perspective of criminal investigation, but also the tangled private life that Rath leads. His love life is shambles as he is in love with Charlotte who dumped him six months before Winters death, Kathi, the woman he lived with who he turned away, and his own past.
As in the tradition of Kerr and Pastor, Kutscher’s work is well worth exploring if you enjoy period crime novels subsumed with good historical fiction. In the present instance the reader must sort out the deaths of a number of actresses and determine if a serial killer is involved. Newspapers have already made up their minds which in part gets Rath into further trouble with his superiors. At times, the plot seems to meander, but in the end, Kutscher produces a rousing closure. Having completed THE SILENT DEATH, I look forward to reading the next installment in the series, GOLDSTEIN.