I Wish That I Could Stick Around Berlin*

BerlinBerlin 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’ Samson, 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. Samson 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 Samson 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.


Filed under Ferdinand von Schirach, Len Deighton, Louise Welsh, Philip Kerr, Rebecca Cantrell

32 responses to “I Wish That I Could Stick Around Berlin*

  1. I really enjoyed your examples, as I always do. Unfortunately, I can’t contribute to this one as I’ve never read a crime novel that took place in Germany. Hmmm…perhaps I should add one to the list.

  2. Another great city I hope to visit soon 🙂 Great list – I would have to add a pair of 1960s spy classics, Len Deighton’s FUNERAL IN BERLIN and Adam Hall’s THE BERLIN MEMORANDUM (aka THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM)

  3. A.M. Pietroschek

    I think you’ve done well on presenting Berlin & Germany in the fuller, modern spectrum. Weimar Republic to Nowadays had its changes, and interesting authors settled their novels in those historical periods indeed!

    IF you need inspiration at all, the following 2 LINKS were the best I could find via spontaneous research, as most of my own sources are in German instead.



    One more wonderful article by Margot Kinberg. And I finally remembered ‘Jessica Fletcher’, though I fear I mostly watched it on TV. x-)

  4. We go to Berlin next month. Perfect timing.

  5. I was going to say I hadn’t read any crime novels set in Berlin, but you reminded me about The Collini Case, which I enjoyed very much. And then I remembered Zoran Drvenkar’s brilliant ‘You’ which is partly set in Berlin. And then I also remembered Sebastian Fitzek’s ‘The Child’ – a good thriller, which I actually listened to as a really innovative audiobook with a full cast of top actors doing the narration, complete with authentic recordings of Berlin street sounds in the background… and now I’m feeling quite chuffed! 😉

    • As well you should, FictionFan! You’ve read some fine Berlin-set crime fiction. And you’ve reminded em that I’ve not yet read You, which I keep meaning to get to – soon. Shame on me! I’m interested in The Child, too, and perhaps ii this case, the narration would be the right choice. It sounds as though it’s done quite well.

  6. Margot: Your post brought to mind a non-fiction book, In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, which covers the experiences of America’s Ambassador, William Dodd, and his family in Berlin starting in 1933. The book contains examples of the famed sardonic humour of Berliners. It also tantalizes with Martha Dodd has a private rendezvous with Hitler as some thought is given to them having a personal relationship.

    • Oh, that’s very interesting, Bill! Thank you. It sounds as though it offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the diplomatic life as well as a look at Berlin of that times. I may have to put that one on my wish list.

  7. Fascinating post and more books to add to my TBR list.

  8. Excellent post, Margot! In Jack Higgins’ “Day of Judgment,” a secret group plots the assassination of JFK during his historic visit to then West Berlin. His “The Valhalla Exchange” is also set in and around Berlin. I also recall reading novels about Stasi, the East German secret police during the Cold War. Incidentally, as a former journalist, Frederick Forsyth reported from East Berlin during the height of the CW, and this is reflected in his novels. Several espionage novels of the 20th century dealt with either WWII or the Cold War, and Berlin was the key setting in many of those stories. It’s ironical that we should learn about the real historical and geographical relevance of people and places through works of fiction.

    • I agree, Prashant. But that’s one thing I really like about well-written fiction. It teaches as well as entertains. And you’ve offered such fine examples of the sort of espionage/thriller fiction that’s set in Berlin – thank you for filling in those gaps.

  9. My most memorable virtual visit to Berlin was via John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the most terrifying spy novel ever written.

  10. I lover Berlin, it’s a place I gave greatly enjoyed visiting over the years, and so I am not surprised to see that I have, for once, read most of your examples…

  11. Great post on yet another international city that works so well in the crime & mystery context. Oops! Tim beat me to the punch, but still I’ll mention one of my favorites: John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which – sort – of takes place in Berlin (it begins there in most atmospheric fashion), and possibly even more so I’m a fan of the movie version.

  12. Kathy D.

    I’ve never stepped into WWII novels set inside Germany not my thing. I avoid it, but Rebecca Cantrell’s books would be my first choice with a woman protagonist, Hannah Vogel.
    But I did read The Collini Case, which is excellent.

  13. I have read all of these except the book by Louise Welsh. Enjoyed some of the other suggestions too. Berlin would be a great place to visit.

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