The city is in ruins and divided between American, British, French, and Russian sectors. German war veteran and police detective Gregor Reinhardt is trying to reassemble his life but, like his city, it’s been smashed into too many pieces.
Not only does he have to contend with the loss of his family and his home, but also guilt over the war and the politics of a police department in which everyone has a sponsor among one of the occupying powers and geopolitics gets played out in the office.
And now he has a serial murderer on his hands, one who shoves sand or water down his victim’s throats in order to suffocate or drown them. Throw in some unrepentant Nazis and a frighteningly efficient Soviet officer, and Reinhardt is up for a long case.
I found this book by accident while browsing through my local bookshop and it’s the best mystery novel I’ve read all year. McCallin is a master storyteller who evokes the grim, surreal landscape of postwar Berlin.
As he takes us along on Reinhardt’s case, we get to experience the sights, sounds, and even the smells and tastes of a once-proud city trying to dig itself out from disaster. The author has clearly done his homework and we learn all sorts of fascinating details about life for regular Germans after the war and the politics of the four “Allied” powers ruling Germany.
[Click the images for bigger versions.]
McCallin is good enough on filling us out with the character’s backstory that I was a quarter of the way through it before I discovered this is actually number three in a series. The first two are The Man from Berlin and The Pale House.
It didn’t end up mattering much that I hadn’t read the other books because the reader is quickly brought up to speed.
“Rubble women” were a common sight in German cities
just after the war. The occupying powers gave them a
ration coupon and a pitiful salary for nine house of
backbreaking work clearing up the wreckage. Few men
took this job because they were either dead, crippled,
or in prison camps.
I don’t think I could have gotten through an entire series this bleak anyway. McCallin is relentless. All the German characters have done things they’d rather forget, or even worse things they are defiantly proud of. There is little room for redemption when everyone is guilty. The Allies don’t have clean hands either, and I’m not just talking about the Russians. It seems everyone has ulterior motives and the plot has plenty of interesting twists and turns.
The Ashes of Berlin is historical detective fiction at its best. Just make sure you having something cheerful to read once you’re done with it.
Sean McLachlan is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and several other titles. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page. His latest book, The Case of the Purloined Pyramid, is a neo-pulp detective novel set in Cairo in 1919.