The Richmond Times-Dispatch


Seventy-five years ago, as the world's great democracies dithered and hoped against reality, fascism began to tear Europe apart.

In Germany, Adolf Hitler prepared for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, during which he hoped to exhibit Aryan superiority. In Spain, socialists responded by preparing a protest event for the proletariat, the Olimpiada Popular, in Barcelona.

Into this potent mix steps Jonathan Rabb, whose "The Second Son" concludes his Berlin trilogy in a powerful, shocking and moving novel.

Rabb, a professor of writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design, began the trilogy with 2005's "Rosa," set in 1919, and continued it in 2009's "Shadow and Light," which takes place in 1927. The protagonist in both is Chief Inspector Nikolai Hoffner of the Berlin police.

Now, nine years later, at age 62, he has been forced into early retirement when the Nazis learn that his mother was Jewish. But his police instincts are very much alive, and in "The Second Son" he embarks on a personal mission: His younger son, Georg, a newsreel cameraman, has gone missing in Spain.

Georg, who is 25, has married a Jewish woman, Lotte, and converted to her faith. But he leaves Lotte and their toddler son, Mendel, in Berlin while he pursues his job. When his letters stop, Nikolai travels to troubled Spain, where fascists, anarchists, socialists and communists are struggling for control, to find Georg and bring him home.

That's no easy task, as Nikolai must maneuver among the various factions. He's helped by Mila Piera, a physician whose brother is involved in the fighting and whose plight reminds Nikolai of his elder son, Sascha, who has joined the Nazis in Germany.

As the two travel from town to town, they find themselves in the danger inherent in a nation in tumult, where few are what they appear to be. Rabb skillfully builds the tension as "The Second Son" moves to its conclusion, and he does so with panache and conviction.

And as one would expect from a professor of writing, he also does so with arresting prose that always fits the anxiety and sorrow of his story:

"(A) village appeared in the distance around another turn. Hovering behind it was a wide surge of rock … which rose some two hundred meters from the base of the hills and made the houses below look like tiny pieces of bone tumbling from a shattered skull."

Neither a happy nor an optimistic novel, "The Second Son" is nevertheless an important one. Rabb is an accomplished storyteller as well as a superb stylist, and the conclusion of his trilogy is at once affecting and effective in its portrayal of the run-up to a global nightmare.

Review by Jon Stafford
© The Richmond Times-Dispatch 2011