THE MAN FROM BERLIN
By Luke McCallin
Penguin Books, July, 2013 ($15.00)
Reviewed by Sam Waas
THE MAN FROM BERLIN is exceptional, particularly since it's a first novel. A cover blurb states that "From page one, Luke McCallin draws the reader into a fascinating world..." and for once, it's absolutely correct. I was captivated by this book. It's erudite, nuanced, and at the same time exciting and filled with sharp elements of a good mystery thriller. It's a trite catchphrase, but in this case quite true, that putting this book down is difficult.
1943, and Yugoslavia is under German occupation and rule. In Sarajevo, Abwehr (military intelligence) Captain Gregor Rheinhardt is assigned a murder case. A German officer has been found shot dead in the elegant home of a flamboyant female filmmaker, esteemed by her Yugoslav people. She was also murdered, brutally stabbed in an adjacent room.
Rheinhardt is tasked with solving the German officer's murder but is only peripherally expected to pursue the Yugoslav filmmaker's death. Conversely, the local police care little about the dead German but are working overtime to find the killer of their beloved partisan ingénue.
Circumstances could hardly be worse. Rivalries and simmering hatred between Germans and the locals serve to block any reasonable investigation, and Rheinhardt must tread gently, as he's already disliked by the SS, distrusted by the civilian police, and is also being submarined by unknown persons who are working to nullify his objective to solve the murders.
Captain Rheinhardt is a decorated WW-I veteran and after the War, had a superb reputation in the Berlin police as a homicide investigator. Gradually, inexorably, the civilian German police were however subverted by the Nazis and Gestapo, becoming more and more politicized and less professional. Rheinhardt, in an effort to maintain his independence, ran afoul of the new order and was shuffled into less and less effective positions. Eventually he reenlisted with the Abwehr in an attempt to escape political pressures. Of course, the same Nazi influence also stifles military investigations, and Rheinhardt is trapped between his desire to do the right thing and his lack of authority to make this happen. As McCallin so succinctly describes, he was "A man who loved his country, but hated what it had become."
THE MAN FROM BERLIN is a both a civilian and wartime thriller where a seeming "everyday" crime like murder may in fact be linked to deeply protected military secrets. The skill by which McCallin weaves routine police procedures with an overlying layer of international espionage is, quite simply, brilliant. As Rheinhardt digs deeper, he encounters increasing pressure to accept the politically amenable motives and suspects (confessed under duress, of course) and ignore hidden pathways to the killer.
The story line is carefully revealed as Rheinhardt continues his self-enforced mission, to ignore political expediencies and continue searching for the real murderer. Throughout, the narrative is intelligent, the dialogue extremely realistic, the craftsmanship apparent in every sentence.
My only objection is that the story may be a bit too complex and heavily detailed. There are numerous characters and their accented ethnic names are somewhat difficult to remember. Political rivalries are also complex, from the Germans to the ethnic Serbs, ethnic Croatians, Muslims, Christians, and other sub-groups, none of whom seem to trust one another. Locales are also provided in detail, specific streets and neighborhoods carefully described. All this is an historically accurate picture, of course, and the author must be credited with the effort made to inject authenticity. But a little goes a long way, and I admit to often being slowed as I tried to digest the array of names, ethnic interstices, and varied locations.
This is however of small import compared with the extraordinary depth and engaging characterizations of principals and their interactions. THE MAN FROM BERLIN has my highest recommendation as a first rank period mystery told beneath the covering umbra of the War.
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