Dark days in post-war Berlin
Thriller offers unparalleled historical atmosphere
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