Headline | 2021 (18 March) | 432p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book
Berlin in December 1939 is beginning to feel the effects of war. Shortages are becoming noticeable in the city’s most celebrated restaurants, much to the irritation of powerful men, but, far more menacingly, the newly-imposed nightly blackout has brought monsters out to play. When Gerda Korzeny, a former actress and celebrated beauty, is raped and murdered, the establishment takes note. Gerda was married to a top Nazi lawyer, a friend of Goebbels. The Gestapo call in Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke to investigate. There’s a reason Schenke has been selected – he’s not a member of the Nazi Party and is only tolerated for his glamorous past racing cars, an illustrious career that ended in a crash. If this case should uncover demons, then Schenke will make the perfect scapegoat. Then, as the nights draw even darker, another woman is murdered and the pressure on Schenke mounts.
Berlin is one of my favourite cities and I’ve always been fascinated by its past, especially during the 1930s when its reputation as a city of culture and hedonism comes up against the brick wall of the Nazis and fascism. Blackout is set at a particularly interesting time, during the first weeks of the Second World War when society seems bemused that Britain should have declared war on it. At this time war is mostly an inconvenience with the parties and dining out continuing, with the acceptance that eventually Britain and France will succumb to German military might, just like Poland. It’s intriguing to see how these men and women view the Nazis among them. Most have joined the Nazi Party and there is an acceptance and compliance, albeit one tinged with fear and regret. That’s for some, others positively thrive.
Crime fiction set in Nazi Berlin is not straightforward. The crimes of the regime are off the scale, so the author is faced with the challenge of making the reader feel that these murders matter. There also needs to be an empathy with Schenke. That issue is partly solved by giving him his glamorous past and also his angst with his Nazi controllers. He’s getting on with life as best as he can, loyal to Germany but uneasy with its fascism. There is some success. The murders are cruel – I actually couldn’t read some of this – and we do care for the women, especially Gerda. There is a whole social side to this, which goes beyond politics, with the lot of some women as trophy wives or mistresses. But I’m not sure I have the same empathy towards Schenke but that’s not so much to do with his issues towards the Nazis as with his attitude towards women, an attitude that seems prevalent through the novel.
The serial killer investigation part of the novel is bleak (admittedly I’m not much of a reader of serial killer crime fiction, whatever the setting) and I rather think that women have a hard time of it generally. Nobody seems to like them very much, including Horst Schenke, who, like other men in the novel, is very critical of the woman he professes to love. The women here are judged by their lovers. Gerda was and so, too, is Karin, Schenke’s girlfriend. He seems more interested in her important admiral uncle than her and he regularly reflects on her faults. Gerda is hit by her lover. I found this casual dislike of women quite difficult, quite apart from the violence done to them by the killer. It does, though, help build an atmosphere that this is a place doing great wrongs, an evil place and time. It is most definitely atmospheric and immersive – there is a fog of evil hanging over Berlin in December 1939, compounded by the blackout.
So, despite my issues with the novel, it is a powerful read and, if you enjoy serial killer thrillers, then this may well be for you. Its historical setting is vividly real and is undoubtedly one of the most evocative portrayals of Nazi Berlin that I’ve read. You can feel the cold horror of it as Nazism permeates itself into society and people’s lives. The killings don’t seem out of place and that makes them even more harrowing.
I can’t finish this review without saying how much I adore Simon Scarrow’s Cato and Macro novels!