Berlin has a tumultuous – some would even say at times tortuous – history. Politics and world events have had a tremendous impact on the city, too. Yet at the same time, Berlin is home to world-class music, intellectual pursuit and top museums, among other things.
Because Berlin has been the focal point of so much history, it’s not surprising that several crime fiction authors have set their novels and series there. There’s just something about the city. Space only permits me to mention a few examples. So does the fact that my German is, to put it mildly, pathetic on my good days. But here are just a few examples.
Several stories in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series are set in Berlin, beginning in the years just before World War II. Gunther was a police officer, but in March Violets, the first of the series, we learn that he has become a private investigator. He’s no fan of the Nazis, and has nothing but contempt for their bullying, thuggery and violent anti-Semitism. But Gunther is no fool. He knows how powerful the Nazis are, and he knows that he’s as vulnerable as anyone (he has a Jewish grandparent). So he does his best to negotiate the very dangerous minefield that is World War II Berlin. After the war ends, Gunther has to find a place for himself in a very different Berlin that now becomes the flashpoint for what later becomes the Cold War.
Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series also takes place mostly in Berlin. This series begins in 1931, during the last years of the Weimar Republic, and features crime reporter Hannah Vogel. In the first of this series, A Trace of Smoke, Vogel discovers that her brother Ernst has died. Determined to find out the truth about his death, she starts asking questions. Discovering what really happened is going to be a difficult task, though, because the trail leads to some important players in the increasingly powerful Nazi party. Going up against them could have tragic consequences. As the series goes on, and World War II looms on the horizon, Vogel leaves Berlin. But she returns in time for the 1936 Olympic Games in that city, this time as a spy. And that’s when she discovers that the Nazis have crafted a peaceful, pleasant exterior for the city for the benefit of the many visitors. Underneath, though, Vogel discovers some of the awful things that are really going on. Later, she learns what the Nazis’ plans for the Jews really are as she uncovers the truth about a mass deportation of Jews to Poland. This series gives readers a look ‘behind the scenes’ as the Nazis come to power and establish their stranglehold on Berlin and the rest of Germany.
As you’ll know, after World War II, Berlin began to take on a whole new strategic importance as the Cold War began in earnest. Lots of spy and other thrillers have been written about this time period; I’ll just mention one. Len Deighton’s Berlin Game, which takes place in 1983, features Bernard ‘Bernie’ Sansom, who works for MI6 in its London Central office. He’s a former field agent who’s settled closer to home as he’s approached middle age. Disturbing news come to the London Central office that one of their active field agents, nicknamed Brahms Four, wants to come to the West. This is an agent who’s been working in East Berlin for some time, and the agency needs the information that Brahms Four provides. Sansom grew up in Berlin (his father was a British agent who worked in Germany during World War II), so he’s thoroughly familiar with the city. He’s the natural choice to go to East Berlin and try to persuade Brahms Four to stay ‘in the trenches’ for just a while longer. As if that problem isn’t enough, MI6 learns that there’s a very highly-placed KGB mole somewhere in the agency. Now Sansom has to solve the Brahms Four problem and find out who the mole is. And he’s up against some dangerous people who don’t want him to succeed. This novel gives the reader a close look at a divided Berlin, weary of the Cold War, but still heavily caught up in it. There is certainly beauty in the city, but the underside of the city is never very far away.
Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case) takes place in modern-day Berlin, but shows that, as the saying goes,’ old sins cast long shadows.’ Fabrizio Collini is an Italian immigrant who’s lived quietly in Germany for many years, with no problems and no criminal record. One day, he travels to Berlin, to the Hotel Adlon. There, he goes to the suite occupied by business magnate Jean-Baptiste Meyer, shoots Meyer, and is promptly arrested. Caspar Leinen is a new attorney who’s on standby duty for Legal Aid when he gets a call from the local examining magistrate. Collini has no attorney, and German law requires that he have legal representation. Lenin isn’t going to find this case easy, though. Collini admits that he committed the murder, but he won’t give a motive, so defending him is going to be a real challenge. Still, Leinen gets to work. ultimately find the entire case rests on an obscure point of German law. He also finds that this case comes closer to home than he thought.
And then there’s Louise Welsh’s The Girl on the Stairs. Jane Logan has just moved to Berlin to be with her partner Petra. They have a beautiful apartment, and the couple are expecting their first child, so there’s every reason to feel optimistic. Still, Jane is a little lonely. Her only real contacts are Petra, Petra’s brother, and a few other people. And Jane’s German isn’t fluent enough for her to go out and easily make new friends. Then, she begins to take an interest in another family living in the same building. Dr. Alban Mann and his thirteen-year-old daughter Anna. Gradually, Jane becomes concerned about Anna when she hears vicious arguments coming from that apartment. And she learns that there’s a mystery surrounding Anna’s mother, who hasn’t been a part of the Manns’ lives since Anna was very a small child. Despite the fact that Petra wants her to stay out of the other family’s problems, Jane becomes determined to protect Anna. As you can imagine, this has terrible consequences…
There is, of course, a lot more excellent crime fiction that takes place in Berlin – much more than I could mention here. If you want a real expert on the topic, just stop over to Mrs. Peabody Investigates, which is the source for all sorts of classic and contemporary German crime fiction. And while you’re there, don’t forget to check out her great giveaway! You don’t want to miss it!
ps. Thanks to VisitBerlin.de for the beautiful ‘photo!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kirsty MacColl’s Berlin.