Dark days in post-war Ber­lin

Thriller of­fers un­par­al­leled his­tor­i­cal at­mos­phere

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Luke McCallin No Exit Press, £16.99 Re­view by Brian Mor­ton

IDON’T read all that many thrillers, and I read hardly any of them twice. The Ashes of Ber­lin falls into the lat­ter group be­cause it doesn’t quite com­fort­ably fit the for­mer. Its con­sid­er­able sat­is­fac­tions and thought­ful­ness have lit­tle to do with plot con­struc­tion and twists, which are rel­a­tively generic and clunky, or even with McCallin’s series char­ac­ter Gre­gor Rein­hardt, here in his farewell ap­pear­ance, sec­onded to his old job as Kripo po­lice­man.

In­stead, it’s a book that of­fers his­tor­i­cal at­mos­phere un­par­al­leled in re­cent crime fic­tion (or that part of it I’m aware of). In telling his story, McCallin de­liv­ers a vivid sense of place, time and the com­plex­ity of our ev­ery­day ne­go­ti­a­tions, and makes a real at­tempt to find out why we’ve been put here and what we’re for.

That’s a lot to load on a mur­der mys­tery. This one hinges on the dis­cov­ery, in im­me­di­ately post-war Ber­lin, of a num­ber of sim­i­larly mur­dered men, killed in what might be a rit­ual fash­ion, and all of them (it gives away very lit­tle to say) with a shared mil­i­tary his­tory. Rein­hardt has to walk down some ex­tremely mean streets in pur­suit of the truth.

I spot­ted the likely killer on page 90 and en­joyed the way the clues were laid out, but it’s 1947 Ber­lin, with its com­plex occupation ar­range­ments, its gang­sters and feral chil­dren, that is the real cen­tral char­ac­ter.

It’s a de­stroyed city, whose dust flours Rein­hardt’s shoes as he limps along like Oedi­pus; limp­ing is an im­por­tant trope in this book. As he in­ves­ti­gates, Rein­hardt muses on his vi­o­lent past, which was set out in The Man From Ber­lin and The Pale House, nei­ther of them quite as good as this, and bring­ing a touch of Chan­dler-like knight er­rantry to the dev­as­tated city.

McCallin may well be aware that as the events of his book un­fold amid gloom and chill, Ray­mond Chan­dler was set­tling into sunny La Jolla and work­ing on two last Philip Mar­lowe books.

There are other lit­er­ary sources, in terms of char­ac­ter, sit­u­a­tion and plot. Rein­hardt is strongly rem­i­nis­cent of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko, who al­ways has to work a path be­tween the civil po­lice, KGB and nomen­klatura in a sim­i­larly bleak Soviet Rus­sia.

THE main plot de­vice of The Ashes of Ber­lin is the sort of thing Fred­er­ick Forsyth played with in The Odessa File. There are echoes of Co­nan Doyle in Rein­hardt’s in­tu­ition­ism (and in his lit­tle band of Baker Street Ir­reg­u­lars), and of Dick­ens in the ash-heaps and air of creep­ing de­cay. It’s also hard not to spot similarities with the moral land­scape of The Third Man.

But what makes the book ter­rific is the hu­man­ity and hope that shine through even the dark­est of scenes. An old lady keeps alive bees and mint plants in a tiny gar­den, of­fer­ing sweet­ness and green; the fact that she’s also an art ex­pert hints that sweet­ness and light haven’t been en­tirely ban­ished.

McCallin has him­self served as a hu­man­i­tar­ian worker and peace­keeper, and it shows. Only some­one who’s seen, rather than just imag­ined, hu­man be­ings un­der ex­treme pres­sure could so con­fi­dently bal­ance hor­ror and hope. It gives away noth­ing more to say that Rein­hardt’s jour­ney ends with rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and per­haps re­u­nion.

The too-ob­vi­ous Amer­i­can ti­tle, which seems to have been adopted as a sub­ti­tle here, is a re­minder that Gunter Grass be­lieved post-war Ber­lin to be the city that best ex­pressed the con­tra­dic­tions of the 20th cen­tury.

McCallin pro­vides sec­tor maps to Bri­tish, French, Amer­i­can and Soviet zones, and a plan of the U-Bahn that you’ll find your­self check­ing for bear­ings; but the phys­i­cal city is just the dust on top of a real but imag­i­nary place in which we all have to trade com­pro­mises and cour­te­sies, loy­alty and self-in­ter­est, sol­i­dar­ity and soli­tude, beauty and hor­ror.

Old col­leagues call Rein­hardt “In­spec­tor Crow” and make mock­ing noises be­hind his back. But he is a wise bird, who doesn’t caw “Nev­er­more” but calls out for a beau­ti­fully mod­er­ate un­der­stand­ing of cos­mic jus­tice: “Be­cause there has to be some­thing to come back to. There has to be a mo­ment when we say ‘enough’. Jus­tice . . . jus­tice has to mean some­thing to the one be­ing pun­ished. Oth­er­wise . . .”

The Ashes of Ber­lin is set in 1947, and the city with its com­plex occupation ar­range­ments, gang­sters and feral chil­dren, is a cen­tral char­ac­ter

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