Dallas Morning News
Not all good popular writing serves as an appealing form of escape from the everyday world. Empty thrillers and fake historical fiction glut the market, as has been true ever since there has been a commercial trade in books, especially fiction.
However, since World War II, we have been treated to a superior kind of thriller, of the historical variety, with antiheroic overtones and political undertones, just the sort of book fiction addicts like myself crave to carry with us on airplane trips and to stash away at home for those days when we just can’t face up to reading another Serious Novel.
I’m not sure exactly why this particular offshoot of the mainstream novel has become so popular — we can leave that question to the literary sociologists and historians — but the fact is we’ve got a strong cadre of practitioners who have dedicated their work lives to perfect this form.
Alan Furst undoubtedly leads the pack. And, pardon the pun, second only to Furst stands Jonathan Rabb, whose trilogy about Germany between the world wars now, with the publication of The Second Son, stands complete.
The mainstream historical novel usually puts forward a world-historical figure, through whose eyes we view the changing and shifting historical landscape. In the historical spy thriller, which is what we have in Rabb’s work, the main character tends to be an expert, as in a spy or secret agent or, as in Rabb’s case, Nikolai Hoffner, a half-Jewish Berlin homicide inspector, with a dark view of the world and a troubled couple of sons.
His world is the world of Berlin. The first volume of the trilogy, Rosa, opens with an homage to that troubled city: “Berlin in December, to those who know her, is like no other place …” Through Hoffner’s eyes, we view the most turbulent era in modern German history, when political parties took to the streets and murder became part of their practice, and the culture evolved from a young democracy to the beginnings of the vicious fascism that would mark it for all time.
In the second volume, Shadow and Light, Hoffner, whose wife has been murdered and whose sons are estranged from him, works a homicide investigation in the midst of the consolidation of Nazi power and the concomitant rise of the German film industry.
The Second Son completes the 20-year span of the trilogy by carrying us to Spain during its civil war as Hoffner goes on a quest to find his younger son, missing in the turmoil of that war. As in the earlier novels, plot fades and reappears but the atmosphere is everything as Rabb, steeped in the details of the period, brings background into the foreground to give us the feel of life at the time. In a movie, the director can do most of this by means of set decoration and costume. The novelist has to deploy detail at the service of character and plot in such a way as to enhance rather than detract from the forward movement of the story.
Steeped in his research, Rabb works wonders, juggling Nazi sympathizers and anarchists and guilty bystanders and innocent warriors with an alacrity few in his generation can maintain, as in this snapshot moment, in which he has Hoffner observe a cadre of anarchist front-line troops at ease in their camp.
“They each had a rifle slung over a shoulder or a pistol strapped to a belt. There were berets, metal helmets, an airman’s cap that had frayed at the back, but nothing to say they belonged together. They didn’t stand like soldiers. They didn’t smoke like soldiers. But they talked like soldiers — that hushed, half-joking pose of false hope and unexamined fear …”
And standing behind all this, in this volume, is the land itself. Rather than the monument-festooned cityscape of Berlin, here is the rough and beautiful terrain of Spain, in which history and culture seem to be fused with the landscape.
“There is a kind of madness,” Rabb writes, “that lives on the plains of La Mancha. It settles on the mind in the last of the afternoon, when the sun perches between the passing sails of the windmills and seems to wink with every turn of the blade. It isn’t the billowing itself that sparks the delusion — that, they say, requires a nobler kind of madness. … Driving through the heat, Hoffner gazed into the bleached red of the sky, the color of blood mixed with water, although here it was clouds sifting through a dying sun …”
I don’t want to give away the news about the success or failure of Hoffner’s search for his younger son, but in the end, Inspector Hoffner flies off into the oncoming darkness, having accomplished Rabb’s mission, of carrying to completion this engrossing trilogy on his strong shoulders.
Review by Alan Cheuse
© Dallas Morning News 2011