'Shadow and Light' and 'A Quiet Place'

Berlin on the brink: Desperation, corruption fuel pair of thrillers

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The damage that World War I wreaked on Germany's national psyche, particularly its moral center, has inspired artists and writers from Georg Grosz to Christopher Isherwood to create works that disturb and entertain.

Two contemporary crime authors, Philip Kerr and Jonathan Rabb, are now tapping the keg of corruption that marked the years in Berlin between the armistice and the rise of Nazism to craft vivid historical novels.

Both work with real characters and events to give their heroes, Berlin police detectives with a Philip Marlowe tough code of ethics -- and their readers -- plenty to chew on.

Kerr is the more ambitious historian, taking his wise-cracking cop, Bernie Gunther, from pre-war Berlin to postwar Buenos Aires, a very dangerous place as well. Framed as a war criminal after World War II, Gunther hops a ride with Adolf Eichmann on a freighter to Argentina, a friendly place for diehard Nazis.

   
"A QUIET FLAME"

By Phillip Kerr
Marian Wood/Putnam ($26.95)

   

His goose-stepping pals arrange a job with Argentine authorities, allowing him to rub elbows with Mr. and Mrs. Juan Peron during his investigation of a murder with echoes of his Berlin cases.

Kerr builds his story like an apple strudel, lots of layers that peel away to reveal a shocker based on fact that threatens everybody from Peron down to Gunther.

The old Berliner still has a way with women, naturally. His affair with the beautiful -- and Jewish -- Anna lends piquant tones of romance and danger to his already compromised life.

"A Quiet Flame" is an intelligent, smartly written thriller with a touch of reality that makes its chills even more chilly.

Rabb's take on 1927 Berlin contains plenty of Nazi menace, although Hitler's gang wasn't in power, but his interesting choice of Germany's fabled film studio, UFA, makes his crime puzzler sizzle.

   
"SHADOW AND LIGHT"

By Jonathan Rabb
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux ($26)

   

Nokolai Hoffner, half German, half Russian Jew, is the moral center of the story, a hard-nosed cop whose personal life has been devastated by Germany's political turmoil.

Rabb creates a version of the Berlin police department with the same attention to details found in Ed McBain's NYPD offices. When a UFA exec is found dead in his studio office bathtub, Hoffner, puffing cigarette after cigarette, is called in. He pulls a plug on more than the tub, of course, causing even famed filmmaker Fritz Lang to take notice.

Rabb's untidy plot jumps from trade secrets about sound-on-film technology and Berlin's sex underground of depravity to shadowy military plotters and the men who joined the Nazi gang of thugs, including Hoffner's son.

The love interest is Helen Coyle, an American in the employ of MGM, a possible buyer for UFA, particularly if that pesky sound problem can be worked out.

The problem with "Shadow and Light" is Hoffner. He doesn't have Gunther's quick wit and cynical acceptance of a world turned upside down but is more of a plodder with a heavy heart.

Readers who appreciate a well-researched historical tale still will be able to enjoy Rabb's work, however.

Advice: While both books have author's notes, skip Rabb's until you've finished his novel. It gives too much away.


Contact Bob Hoover at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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