It is 1931 in Berlin and Hannah Vogel, a hardened crime reporter, who writes for the Berliner Tageblatt under the pseudonym Peter Weill, is shocked to see her brother Ernst's photograph posted in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead at the Alexanderplatz police headquarters.
Ernst, a cross dressing lounge singer at a gay nightclub, had been murdered and thrown in the river. Despite the danger Hannah begins to delve into the lives of her brother's friends, powerful lawyer Rudolphe von Reiche and young Nazi Wilhelm Lehmann. At the court while reporting on a rape case she meets the handsome banker Boris Krause, who has more than one motive for wanting to begin a relationship.
Then her search is complicated by the arrival on her doorstep, late at night, of the endearing five year old child Anton, a "brave" devotee of the cowboy and Indian novels of Karl May, who claims his father is Ernst and calls her "Mother".
Hannah in her investigations into Ernst's murder and Anton's parentage unearths a scandal that could effect the future of the Nazi party and puts her and Anton's lives at risk.
Rebecca Cantrell's first novel A Trace of Smoke is narrated by Hannah Vogel and that gives the story an immediacy and sense of tension and danger that grabs you from the very first page. In Philip Kerr's books the presence of the wise cracking "Marlowe style" detective Bernie Gunther sometimes seems incongruous, but Hannah Vogel fits right in to an accurately depicted decadent Berlin.
The geography, attitudes and corrupt feel of the city is described in meticulous and fascinating detail. The characters and action are related with such feeling that you imagine you are there outside Wertheim's department store surrounded by chanting SA Brownshirt thugs, or in the El Dorado bar, or boating on Lake Wannsee. It is engrossing and absorbing but not always comfortable feeling.
The enormous losses in manpower in the Great War, the devastating inflation of 1923 and the poverty and class divisions are all factors in the growing darkness about to envelop Germany. But Hannah is among those good people who hope the final journey into madness can be prevented.
I am not the only reviewer who thinks this is an outstanding book see here.
A Trace of Smoke is thrilling historical crime writing that entertains, educates, excites, and provides us with a real heroine as well as stimulating thought about whether we have learned the lessons of history.
I can't wait to read the sequel entitled A Night of Long Knives which is due out in 2010.
Rebecca Cantrell majored in German, creative writing and history at the Freie Universitat of Berlin and Carnegie Mellon University and now lives in Hawaii.
[photo of El Dorado from