Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Shadow and Light by Jonathan Rabb

They say it is rare to have good 
reason to leave Berlin.
Opening to
Shadow and Light
by Jonathan Rabb
Like the classic American detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashell Hammet Jonathan Rabb's novel Shadow and Light starts what looks like a simple crime only to find the investigation into it involves more and more people until a wide swath of society, even the detective himself, has become implicated in criminal behavior.  Fan of classic detective stories will find themselves right at home in  Shadow and Light, it even has a classic femme fatale character, one best played by Barbara Stanwyck.  

Shadow and Light, again like a classic detective novel, is set in the big city circa 1927, a little early I suppose but this is okay because the city is Berlin where the Great Depression came early.  The novel's mellieu is seedy, the Berlin  of adult night clubs where sexual exploration is the norm and underworld kingpins meet with movie studio executives under the shadow of the rising Nazi movement.  Familiar territory, really, for fans of detective stories.

In Shadow and Light police detective Nicolai Hoffner is called to investigate the apparent suicide of an executive at the UFA Studio, which once rivaled Hollywood as film capital of the world,  just outside of Berlin.  He soon realizes that he has a murder on his hands and that the potential suspects include some very powerful people.  The plot complications involve famous director Fritz Lang who has just completed his science fiction epic Metropolis, a very young Peter Lorre who will soon star in Lang's underworld triller M, several underworld figures, night club owners and one of the richest men in post World War I Germany.  Even Hoffner's own son becomes a suspect by the novel's end.

As a straightforward classic detective novel in the American style, Shadow and Light is darn good.  Mr. Rabb can hold his own with the best of them.  If the plot eventually gets a bit hard to follow, maybe even a bit hard to swallow, this is no different from Raymond Chandler in my view.  Getting lost in the plot is often part of the fun for me.

What set Shadow and Light apart, as far as I'm concerned, was the relationship Detective Hoffner has with his two sons, Sasha and Georg.  Shadow and Light is the second Hoffner novel so the reader does not get the full explanation of why their relationship has gone so wrong, but we don't really need the details to understand or to sympathize with what remains.  Hoffner's older son, Sasha, wants nothing more to do with his widowed father.  Hoffner has clearly lost the boy, now a young man, who has fallen in with the SA, an early precursor to the Nazi SS.  Sasha seems to reach out to his father now and then, but unless Nicolai will accept his new circle and their philosophy, which he won't, Sasha will sever contact with him.  Sasha doesn't know that his grandmother is Jewish.  Hoffner doesn't tell him.

Georg is the more interesting of the two brothers.  He understands both his father and his older brother, sees the errors both of them make in their own lives and vis-a-vis each other.  While no one in the Hoffner family is emotionally demonstrative, Georg is the most capable of dealing with the problems feelings cause them all. He is mature beyond his teenage years, a wise soul who knows when speaking the truth will make a difference and when silence is the best choice.

Usually I don't like detective stories with lots of secondary characters unrelated to crime, but I found the family drama in Shadow and Light almost as interesting as the case under investigation.  Mr. Rabb keeps his plot tight by making sure the secondary characters are at least tangentially involved in the criminal investigation.  Through his association with the Nazi's Sasha becomes a suspect; through his close connection with Sasha, Georg is able to help his father with the investigation.  By the novel's end, it's clear that what looked like incidental characterization and gratituous historical detail has been important to Hoffner's investigation all along.

I don't know if I'll go back and read the first Nicolai Hoffner novel since I know so much of what happened in it from reading Shadow and Light, but if there is a third book, I'm there.

I'd like to find out what happens next.



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