by Robert WeibezahlApril 2009
A cinematic mystery in Weimar Berlin
Shadow and Light is Jonathan Rabb’s second historical crime novel—in a planned trilogy—featuring Berlin police chief inspector Nikolai Hoffner and set during the years between the two world wars. The first, the much-acclaimed Rosa, revolved around the 1919 killing of Communist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Eight years later, Hoffner’s latest investigation takes him into the world of the German film industry and the high stakes race to produce a viable technology for “talkies.”
It begins with a suspicious suicide at the city’s Ufa studios, where a film executive is found shot through the heart in a bathtub. A young starlet is missing. Not much to go on, but Hoffner is soon drawing connections between the death, the disappearance and a series of pornographic films he stumbles upon in the course of his investigation. The striking thing about the films is not their raw content, but the fact that they have sound. Stunned by this technological marvel, Hoffner cannot help but wonder why it has been tested on such distasteful material rather than a legitimate studio-sanctioned movie.
Enter American Helen Coyle, a talent agent for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who in Berlin calls herself by the more Germanic “Leni.” She is also on the trail of the missing starlet, or so she claims. Leni is standard-issue noir leading lady, what a pulp fiction writer might call “a tall, cool drink of water,” fashioned in the Barbara Stanwyck/Veronica Lake/Lauren Bacall mode. She seduces Hoffner with her brains and beauty, and he succumbs completely, despite the fact that it is impossible to get a straight answer out of her. The dialogue between Hoffner and Leni is one of the highlights of the novel, crisp, elliptical and filled with delicious subtext. Soon Hoffner allows Leni to tag along as he investigates, perhaps a questionable judgment on the part of a seasoned policeman, but suspension of belief is an accepted convention of the crime novel.
The protracted plot goes up many a blind alley and encounters its share of red herrings before reaching a less-than-surprising conclusion (Hoffner seems to blunder to the bottom of things in spite of his investigative instincts rather than because of them), but the mystery storyline at the heart of Shadow and Light is really just an excuse for Rabb to call on his true strengths as a writer, most notably his atmospheric evocation of time and place. The city itself is an important character in the book, and Weimar Berlin is brilliantly portrayed in all its gritty decadence and post-war opportunism. It is the Berlin that Isherwood and Auden would later famously write about, where sexual depravity and underground jazz joints live cheek by jowl with staggering inflation and rising fascism.
Hoffner clearly loves his hometown, which he affectionately refers to with the feminine pronoun, “she,” despite its endemic decay and its anti-Semitism. Half Jewish himself, the detective is decidedly unsettled by the rising National Socialist Workers Party, and dismayed to discover that his estranged son, Sascha, is an active member of the party and an aide to Joseph Goebbels. Sascha despises his father, holding him accountable for the death of his mother, and Hoffner’s wife, Martha. A second son, Georg, though only 16, is the linchpin trying to hold the family together. Hoffner’s tortured inadequacies as a father lend a welcome element to his character, a flawed humanity that makes him much more than an embattled German bureaucrat who can’t shape the world the way he would wish it.
Shadow and Light features a supporting cast of “real” characters, including legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang; his Nazi-sympathizer wife, Thea von Harbou; and a young, then little-known actor named Peter Lorre. Undoubtedly the most fascinating character is Alby Pimm, a presumably fictional Berlin crime boss who somehow manages to be utterly charming even when he’s dispatching his henchman to kill. The give and take between him and Hoffner is worth the price of admission.
Shadow and Light is an entertaining book that demands a bit more concentration than most books in the genre, but the effort pays off. Rabb is reportedly at work on the final leg of the trilogy, which will be set in 1936. The dates of the books are chosen to highlight key moments when Germany might have taken a different path. It seems safe to say a certain Austrian painter will play a role in the next one.