The Dallas Morning News

Eerie, unsettling mystery in prewar Germany


Jonathan Rabb could have been a Broadway stage designer. The mood he creates in Shadow and Light is so palpable, so unsettling and sinister, it's hard to shake. But then this second in the author's between-the-wars trilogy takes place in highly atmospheric Weimar Berlin.

It's 1927, a time of post-Versailles reparations and hyperinflation. Moving through this chaotic era that, Rabb writes, "bought us democracy and prosperity and nude dancing and cocaine" is Nikolai Hoffner, a chief inspector with the Kriminalpolizei and a German with a secret.

In Rosa, the noirish trilogy's highly regarded first novel, the police detective and his partner tracked the death of Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg, co-founder of the league that became the Communist Party of Germany.

Incorruptible, detached and physical, Hoffner is one cool Katze. He knows his way around the sex and drug trades, the raunchy after-hours clubs and The Alex, Berlin's police headquarters maze. You just don't want to get too close. His partners have a way of ending up dead.

Here Herr Hoffner returns to investigate when an executive at Universum Film AG, or Ufa, Europe's largest film studio, is found dead in his office bathtub, a Browning revolver in hand.

Rabb has written a winning literary trifecta for whodunit fans, history buffs and cinephiles. The creepy plot keys on a rather obscure but actual series of real-life events: the attempt of American studios to steal new talking-picture technology from Ufa and the German studio's role in the rearming of the Vaterland.

Besides a fictional cast that includes a Hollywood talent agent, a powerful crime boss and Hoffner's two sons, one a school dropout working at Ufa, the other involved with the fledgling Nazi party, Rabb leavens the plot with historical figures.

Enter film director Fritz Lang (Metropolis), his Nazi-symp wife-screen- writer Thea von Harbour, actor Peter Lorre, right-wing media giant Alfred Hugen- berg, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels and Hans Vogt, who in 1918 helped invent a system to record sound on film.

According to the author, the son and grandson of historians, each book in the trilogy is "a chance to find three moments between the wars when Germany (and Berlin in particular) might have taken a different path."

It's a page-turner all right, if you don't turn too fast. Rabb weaves a tangled, sometimes confusing and challenging web. Unless you're familiar with this era, it may help to Google Weimar Republic, Ufa and Freikorps for starters.

The smart and snappy dialogue can be cryptic. Even crafty Hoffman gets caught flatfooted. But if puzzling, it's worth pursuing.

This is rich, evocative writing with devils waiting in the wings.

Shadow and Light takes its title from a line in the book by Vogt. "Without sound," said Vogt, "all you have is shadow and light. Flat, soulless, barren." It's an eerie foreshadowing of things to come.

Reviewed by Jane Sumner.
© The Dallas Morning News 2009