Not quite halfway into Shadow and Light, the second installment of Jonathan Rabb's planned trilogy of novels about Berlin police detective Nikolai Hoffner, the mysterious American woman he's become entangled with advises him that the case he is working on - which involves a possible murder, the production of porno films, a missing actress, and the theft of a device that could change the future of film - isn't as tricky as he's trying to make it. "The way out isn't any more complicated than the way back in."
This rang all sorts of bells for me. When you sit down to write a book review, you must first find your way in; eventually you will need a way out too and it's nice if they bear some connection to each other. It is also a good description of the plotting and writing or the reading and solving of a detective story. How complicated (bad) or complex (good) things are is all relative: so much depends on who's wielding the pen. A lesser writer could easily be crushed under the layers of detail and plot, setting, and character; Rabb juggles them all so smoothly, the only question the reader wants answered is "what happens next?" or perhaps, "why?" There are a lot of "whys?" asked in Shadow and Light, and whether the reader can see the inevitable and horrible coming or knows that there simply are no acceptable answer to some questions, he or she will feel as personally affected by them all as Nikolai and his family are.
Nikolai is a widower. To say more would spoil a reader's enjoyment of the first novel in the trilogy, Rosa, which involves a serial killer preying on solitary middle-aged women and the possibility is that Socialist leader Rosa Luxembourg is among them. Eight years later, Nikolai and his two sons have scattered; the elder, Alexander, or "Sascha", has even taken his mother's maiden name and dropped his father's surname; the younger, Georg, unbeknownst to his father, has dropped out of school at sixteen to work in the thriving German film industry. While investigating a suspicious death at the Ufa film studios, Nikolai encounters Georg and learns that he is no longer a schoolboy. Hoffner receives an invitation through Georg to meet Sascha at a Socialist meeting which, surprising no one who remembers him from Rosa, he attends with Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels and the German Workers Party. If Rosa paints a grim picture of the immediate aftermath of the First World War, Shadow and Light looks toward the future, how it will be shaped and by which kind of German. The subject is a perfect match for noir fiction. And Nikolai Hoffner is the perfect man to view it through; he is both German and a (non-practicing) Jew (although the latter was a long-held secret until recently).
Like any noir "hero," Hoffner attracts more than his share of women. Helen (Leni) Coyle, an American sent, she says, by a Hollywood studio to locate a starlet they want to cast in a film, gets the vital Mary Astor role. There's also Hoffner's aging mother and any number of women Hoffner bumps up against during his pursuit of the truth, but no woman is as important to him as Berlin, a city always referred to using feminine pronouns, a city Hoffner has made more a study of than any woman he has ever known. She affects his every relationship, even that with local criminal kingpin Alby Pimm:
Strange to think he knew him that well but it had been too many years stepping into each other's business-the old bull cop and the little crime boss - and always with one thing in mind: Berlin. She needed them both, and Hoffner had learned to forgive Pimm almost anything when it came to protecting her.
Hoffner also knows that "Berlin's saving grace had always been her incessant movement forward", a movement that will be impeded by World War II and eventually the near-total destruction of the city.
Rabb is a master at creating atmosphere, of firmly moving the reader to the time and place he has created. Several times I found myself having to take in the coziness of home for a while before getting an upsetting scene out of my mind, or seeking warmth, having become chilled by the setting. He uses historical figures as important players in his fiction and does so with authority. This is a practice in fiction I still have some doubts about, but I have to admit that it would be stupid to make up fictional characters to parallel the real lives of people such as Peter Lorre or Fritz Lang, which would simply be a distraction, causing the reader to play the "who is this supposed to be?" game. Rabb is an historian and comes from a family of them; I trust him to do right by both his real people and his fictional characters.
And Rabb's plotlines are gifts that keep giving. Just when you think you've gotten to the central plot, another layer is discovered. Rabb's logical inventiveness is inspiring: you can get out just as you can get in. And what you find in between arriving and departing is worth the trip. For his part, Nikolai learns an important noir lesson.
"So I'm the hero after all," [he asks at the end].
"There are no heroes, Chief Inspector... There are no villains. That's not the way things work. They just move on and the world takes care of itself. And someone like you never really has a part in that."
This is not the kind of book you pick up when you need a laugh (although Nikolai sometimes has a dry, self-deprecating wit), but if you want to venture into a world that is no more, Shadow and Light makes for a rich and rewarding trip with an excellent guide.
Images: Top: Fritz Lang; Bottom: Peter Lorre
This review was originally published in April 2009, and has been updated for the March 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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