Look at what you have, a story involving a conquered but still proud people, a swirling mix of politics, obstructionism from within, interest from without, dead pilots – cavaliers of the air! – a dead British agent, and yourself. An ex-policeman and an ex-officer in the Fascist armed forces. Men who are despised, mistrusted, robbed of nearly all self-respect.
It’s always great when a character does your review for you and so I am indebted to Major Skokov of the Soviet state security for providing the comments above to Gregor Reinhardt, protagonist of The Ashes of Berlin about half way through the book.
1940s Berlin is a reliably bleak setting for a story, as we’ve seen before with Philip Kerr’s Gunther series and also novels like Leaving Berlin. The mix of chaotic living conditions, competing societal norms, and the necessity to betray and counter-betray just to survive: these provide a potent mix for authors who want to explore what people really do when you strip away the guiding forces of civilisation (or find yourself in the middle of a conflict between civilisations). What Luke McCallin does is provide and compare different paths taken by characters largely affected by war or exposed to different totalitarian regimes with their practices of indoctrination on one hand or terror on the other. The characters defend their choices – or, rather, their stories – during set-piece episodes of hard drinking, explosive confessions and reminiscences and bluff and counter-bluff. The result is a fascinating exploration of what causes us to do what we do, and whether we are able to change the path of our lives. And there’s more than a nod to the current fault lines in politics:
[The public] will see those who should have helped the doing anything but. They will not look beyond the immediate, and so the past will loom so much larger for them. A past when their needs, however imperfectly, were met…there is one thing greater than hunger, and that’s fear.
The first murder (I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to state there’s more than one) take place at night, and the theme of darkness permeates proceedings. Reinhardt’s Berlin is a mess:
The building in front of him was a checkerboard of holes and spaces that gaped dark and wide, as if they were mouths sucking down the night itself.
There’s a similar gap between Reinhardt’s teeth which comes into play whenever the detective is under pressure. This happens quite a lot since he seems to spend his time lurching from being informed of new murders, being undermined in turn by the British, American and Soviet forces, experiencing flashbacks to the Great War in which he was injured, being framed for murder himself and being attacked. Plus some other stuff which is a bit too spoilery. Early in the book I wonder whether McCallin is packing too much into Reinhardt’s story and whether he should spread the action around a bit, but by the end of the novel I’m pleased to have felt I understand the perspectives of a wide selection of characters young and middle-aged if mainly (but not exclusively) male.
Or, as Reinhardt considers it as another main character has walked away in the final scene,
He was gone…[Reinhardt] knew [the other character] could be anyone. He could have been that Red Army solider tickling a little girl under her chin as he offered her an apple. Or he could have been that man who hunched his shoulders around as if lighting a cigarette. Or perhaps the blind veteran with a stick, sounding his way across the station’s concourse.
Now in a sense that is to miss the most obvious reading of that paragraph (which I shan’t share). But I like the idea that the themes of the novel are more universal than the immediate issue of the detective procedural.
The mystery itself is intelligent and well-presented. But it’s the other stuff that will stay in my memory.
Thanks to No Exit Press for the review copy. And – as I didn’t mention that we are hosting today’s blog tour slot for The Ashes of Berlin – don’t forget to check out the other blogs taking part.