A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

I loved reading this novel and was sorry to see it come to an end.  It had been on my radar for sometime and I moved it to the top of my reading list when I found out Rebecca Cantrell was coming to the area for a book signing.  I’m now looking forward to reading the second Hannah Vogel novel, A Night of Long Knives, which was just released in June.

Set in 1931 Berlin A Trace of Smoke is a skillfully written mystery/thriller with a literary sensibility.  I was hooked on the first page.  This richly detailed story does not get bogged down by the details because the details are so organic to the story. Hannah Vogel and the surrounding cast of characters are vivid flesh and blood people.  Their lives are in flux due to the aftermath of The Great War and the rise of the Nazi Party, which is poised to take control of not only the city, but of Germany.  Some people, such as Hannah’s Jewish friend Sarah and her brother, have fled Germany while others are trying to negotiate the shifting political landscape.  As a result, the climate is one of increasing distrust, suspicion, and violence.  

Hannah has just discovered something horrible when we meet her on the first pages.  The brother that she practically raised as her own son, Ernst, had been distant from her for the last six months and now he’s dead.  Murdered.  Hannah  sees his picture in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead at the Alexanderplatz police station and must keep the information to herself.  He was fished out of the water, naked, with no signs of violence on his body other than a single stab wound through his heart.  Hannah is a crime reporter and was at the police station for her weekly Monday meeting with a contact who gives her access to reports for potential stories about the murders, rapes, and other crimes committed over the weekend.

She tells no one that Ernst is dead because she, like her dead brother, currently has no identity papers.  Hannah and Ernst had loaned their identity papers to Sarah and her brother who used the papers to escape from the increasingly violent antisemitism of the Nazis.  They used the papers and posed as Hannah and Ernst going on vacation to America.  If Hannah were to report Ernst’s death, all could be lost for Sarah and her brother.  So for now she keeps her own brother’s murder to herself, at least until the identity papers are returned, and starts her own investigation into the murder.

Hannah’s brother was gay and the star performer at the El Dorado, a posh drag club, and that’s her first investigative stop.  Although he’s the star attraction, Hannah is surprised to find that his coworkers at the bar aren’t all that upset he’s gone missing.  Apparently he’s disappeared like this for a few days in the past.  But are some not upset because they’re the murderers and know he’s dead?

The story starts to unfold from there and includes a rich cast of characters, some who have been celebrated and/or decried as representing the “decadence” of Wiemar Berlin: drag queens, gay Nazis, prostitutes whose specialties are advertised by the boots they wear, as well as a powerful lawyer, reporters, Jewish shop owners and peddlers trying to maintain their livelihood in the only home they’ve ever know, an attractive banker and his daughter, an orphaned boy, and a cat named Mitzi.

Some of the details I didn’t particularly notice at first because they are so skillfully woven into the fabric of the narrative, such as this example which is so revealing of Hannah’s character and life:

After breakfast, I cleaned the apartment, like every other week for as long as I could remember.  Anton helped me scrub the floor and wipe down the table.  The last time I changed the sheets, Ernst had been alive.  The time before that, Sarah had been living in Berlin and my identity papers were safely in my pocket.  What would my life be like the next time I changed the sheets?

I read a few paragraphs beyond these lines and then stopped in my tracks to reflect on how seamlessly Cantrell had woven this important aspect of Hannah’s character into the narrative.  Hannah, we’re informed earlier, was raised to be a wife and mother, as were most middle class women of the time period, and the quote above reflects that fact.  However, it also clearly reveals how her life shapes her thinking.  It is such a subtle but profound detail, one of those things that seeps into your brain while reading that you may not notice but that makes the character and story all the richer.

From my experience growing up with a mother and aunts who were raised in Germany between the 1920s-1940s, German women don’t simply take their household chores seriously.  Its something deeper than a duty, its a part of who they are.  There’s no drama surrounding chores–no bitching and moaning or lamenting–the work just gets done.  And it gets done perfectly.  You wash and clean.  I think of the scene in The Reader when another German woman named Hanna (Hanna Schmitz) cleans up the young boy she doesn’t even know as well as the sidewalk where he gets sick.  Even my high school German teacher went off one day about the importance of cleaning what cannot even be seen: your undergarments.  She thought there was nothing more detestable than a young girl or boy who looked good on the outside, but who wore dirty undergarments.  Sounds like she had issues, doesn’t it?

Back to the book: I attended Rebecca Cantrell’s book signing on Monday night.  (It was a joint signing with Shane Gericke whose books are set in Naperville, IL).  One questioner asked Cantrell how she was able to write a novel that reads so convincingly like its in the present when we all know the horrific outcome of Nazi rule.  Cantrell said that of course no one back then knew what would happen, so when researching the time period she stops reading research sources at the date/year she’s currently writing about in an attempt to make sure Hannah doesn’t know about events that she shouldn’t yet know about.

And this was a great learning experience for me:  Cantrell said she is careful to ensure that Hannah and other characters only comment on things that they would notice and not on historical detail.  This made so much sense to me and really brought home why the sheet changing scene made such an impact on me.  It also helped me understand why some historical fiction may seem to have all the right stuff, yet it doesn’t ring true or gets bogged down in details: we don’t notice physical details and reoccurring events in our own lives unless there’s a reason for it, so why include such detail in a story unless it is somehow integral to character development or the story?

I was happy to hear that Cantrell has plans to write a total of nine Hannah Vogel mysteries: three pre-war, three during the war, and three post-war.  A trilogy of trilogies.  A Trace of Smoke will appeal to fans of Philip Kerr, Joseph Kanon, Robert Harris, WWII buffs, and mystery readers who enjoy strong and believable women investigators.

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