Author: Luke McCallin
This was the first time that I read a murder mystery that read so well, I mentally classified it as literary fiction. It was so much more than a whodunit. The cat-and-mouse game between the leading character, Reinhardt, and the killer, the motivation of the killer and the beauty of the writing raised this mystery far above a murder investigation.
Post World War II, tough cop Gregor Reinhardt is back in Berlin, the city he had escaped from when the Nazis gained supremacy. Assigned to the night shift, he is called to a rundown building, where he finds two dead bodies.
One of the corpses is identified as David Carlsen, a British agent, who is thought to have been killed by a criminal as part of a barroom brawl. The other dead man is a former Air Force veteran, Noell, whose case is assigned to Reinhardt, while others take on the Carlsen case.
The British officer Markworth wants Reinhardt to investigate the Carlsen case. Very soon, the Soviets too become interested in the case.
Reinhardt believes that both murders are the work of one man, a serial killer, since the manner in which the men have been killed is the same. Both men have died from having sand shoved down their throats. Reinhardt believes that there is more to the killings than the Berlin kripo he works at is willing to understand. But no one pays heed to his beliefs.
Soon yet another body is found, murdered in the same way. When research through the newspapers of a few months prior indicates that there have been other such murders committed, the police department reluctantly agrees that there might be something to Reinhardt’s theory.
As the body count rises, Reinhardt struggles hard to solve the case. What links the murder victims is the fact that they were all pilots who belonged to the same squadron and were involved in some questionable and illegal activity.
But there are no clues at hand and the killer seems unbeatable. Reinhardt’s physical and mental strength are stretched thin. To add to his woes, the ranks of his enemies seem to grow, as the Soviets and the Nazis all seek to prey on him. The investigation becomes more difficult as his own colleagues seem to enjoy plotting his downfall.
Meanwhile, the Allied powers politic and scramble among themselves, intent on getting ahead in what Reinhardt describes as the race for whatever glitters in the rubble.
Will Reinhardt be able to solve the case? Or will it prove to be his undoing? That’s what you have to read the book to find out. One thing I will tell you, the revelations are a surprise.
The book is divided into five parts, each named so cleverly and appropriately. Part 1 is named How Happy the Dead, in a city in which the living have no food or hope, where folks are separated from their loved ones. Parts 2 to 5 are called By His Work is a Craftsman Known; The Only Blessing Wickedness Possesses; All Guilt Avenged and The Devil Is Never So Black.
Berlin is divided between the members of the Allied Forces, the Americans, Russians, British and the French. The city is a wreck, a ruin of its former self, a place with no glass on its windows, just gaping fissures on ruins.
Post-war Berlin is in a shambles, not unlike post-war Reinhardt, ravaged by external forces. Reinhardt is a haunted man, haunted by the ruins of his city, the wreck he has become, the failed hopes of his son who became a Nazi, his own failing health, and his physical failings. They make him a deeply authentic character. I found Reinhardt most admirable.
Add to this, the sense of loneliness he suffers in his professional career. He is disliked in the police force, because he fought as part of the Allied Forces against the Nazis.
His life is further complicated when his son, Freidrich, once a fervent Nazi and a prisoner of war, is released from a POW camp. Much as the father longs to comfort his son, he is thwarted by the sins Friedrich committed, for which the young man believes there can be no pardon.
The uncertain dynamics of the father-son relationship are beautifully brought out. Reinhardt first loses his son to Nazism, and then to his excesses, as Friedrich becomes involved in something so distasteful that his whole being castigates itself as unclean, outcast, and yet the father longs for true reconciliation with the son.
All these aspects, combined with his own inherent strength of character, Reinhardt a very noble and interesting character.
The other characters that I enjoyed getting to know were Brauer, Reinhardt’s friend who often puts himself in grave danger to help him, and Markworth, the one person who knows Reinhardt better than himself. I also felt for the orphans, fending for themselves while bargaining to retain their freedom with their lucky strikes.
The beauty of the prose is something that I would particularly like to draw attention to. I’ve never thought of war as anything but horrible, but here the author describes his pained romance with Berlin, soon after the war, as the city struggles to get to its feet. In the process, McCallin exposes its bruised and wounded raw beauty.
Even as the Allied powers bicker among themselves, Germany and Germans struggle for their basic needs. Reinhardt puts it eloquently, Defeat is an orphan. An unloved only child. His American friend, Collingridge, adds his own cultural spin to the sense of desperation when he qualifies Reinhardt’s description by adding, A redheaded stepchild.
In a scenario in which everyone is needy, some people are more unequal than others. Reinhardt observes, Another time-honored stricture for a man to take his failings out on his woman or children.
In recognizing the frailty of women, he also acknowledges their strength when he says, Women queuing up for bread? I hear that’s where revolutions often start.
And while we’re talking about great quotes, here’s another one spoken by Markworth who says, No one remembers what they did, no one remembers the consequences of their actions. People walk uncaring into the future and have no idea of what bloody ties stretch out behind them.
The Divided City gives us a peek into history. Having learned history from one perspective, and that the victor’s, most of us are clueless about what ordinary Germans went through, particularly those that didn’t support the Nazis, but still got dragged into the war and its aftermath.
Reading this book could well be an enlightening experience.
(I got a free ARC from FirstToRead).