Crime reporter Hannah Vogel steps into Alexanderplatz Police Station thinking that it’s going to be a normal visit to catch up on the weekend arrests for her column in the Berliner Tageblatt, when she glances at the walls in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead and sees her brother Ernst’s picture.
So begins Rebecca Cantrell’s incredible debut mystery, A Trace of Smoke. And things just escalate from there.
Hannah decides to refrain from telling her friend in the police or her colleagues at the newspaper that Ernst has been murdered until she gets a clearer idea of who the killer might be. This takes Hannah on a journey deep into Berlin’s underbelly as Ernst was an openly gay nightclub singer with a very powerful lover. As Hannah unearths more details of her brother’s life, she realizes that he was involved in a situation that, if revealed, could destroy the Nazi party. And then there’s the small matter of a street urchin named Anton who turns up on Hannah’s doorstep and insists that he’s her son…
It’s hard not to get deeply involved in this book. Ms. Cantrell vividly channels the physical and political atmosphere of Berlin in 1931, and it’s easy to picture the places that Hannah visits and feel the tension in the air. The scenes at the El Dorado nightclub are particularly well written, and the scene where the Nazis protested in front of Wetheimer’s department store because the owners were Jews made me a little emotional. The multiple depictions of soldiers and their homosexual sons also captured the attitude of the time very well: homosexuality was something to be done behind closed doors at some club, and soldier fathers literally beat the principles of “manning up” and doing your duty into their children.
The characters are also extremely well written and accessible, especially Hannah, who is my favorite kind of protagonist in that she’s smart, caring, and honest, but she also has her moments of blind fear and stupidity that alternately have me cheering her on and yelling at her to watch out. The moral dilemmas that Hannah encounters are also extremely heavy, and the fact that the solutions don’t come easily to her made me respect her as a character and Ms. Cantrell as a writer.
The ending is one of those cliffhangers that leaves you unable to contemplate reading anything but the next book in the series, just so that you can make sure everyone is alive before you learn what happens next. I can’t wait to get my hands on A Night of Long Knives!