Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Trace of Smoke, by Rebecca Cantrell (trade, $14.99)

Hannah Vogel discovers her brother's picture in the eerily named Hall of the Unnamed Dead. She cannot claim him, however, because both he and she loaned their identification papers to a Jewish friend and her son to travel from 1931 Berlin to the U.S., to get away from the growing threat of the anti-Semitism that Adolf Hitler's supporters espouse. To be without identification papers in those dangerous times was verboten. People have been executed for less.

Hobbled by not being able to investigate openly and properly, Hannah tries the best she can. She uses her position as a crime columnist to find out the meager facts of her brother's case from the police. She talks to her brother's acquaintances and, as a result, enters the world of post-WWI Berlin decadence. Her brother was a homosexual and transvestite, who sang at one of the popular "Cabaret"-style nightspots.

Her investigation comes to a screeching halt when she opens her door one day to find a five-year-old boy who addresses her as "Mother." He carries a birth certificate that lists her as his mother and her brother as his father. Hannah's life becomes immensely more complicated. (When I first read this description in the jacket summary, I thought, "Ewwww." But Hannah is not the boy's mother, and it is part of the clever – if somewhat fantastical – plot about who the boy actually is.)

Rebecca Cantrell's evocative descriptions of the poverty and soul-torturing compromises the people of Berlin must make are moving. In addition to the exotic erotic other world Hannah's brother surreptitiously moved in, Cantrell shows us a little of all the social classes and brings us face-to-face with the growing resentment against Jews. All in all, a thought-provoking book with a poignant underlying story of the changing mores of Nazi Berlin.

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