Set in a devastated Berlin one month after the close of the Second World War, Berlin has been highly acclaimed. Ben, a German boy retrieving cigarette butts to repackage and sell on the black market, discovers the body of a beautiful young woman in a subway station. Blonde and blue-eyed, she has been sexually assaulted and strangled with a chain. In the scramble to identify the body, the victim is mistaken for an American and a local investigation becomes a matter for the US Military Police. Cpt. John Ashburner and Inspector Klaus Dietrich realize quickly that to solve this apparently motiveless murder they will have to work together. When the bodies of other young women are discovered it becomes clear that this is no isolated act of violence. Pierre Frei has searched the wreckage of Berlin and emerged with an electrifying thriller in the tradition of Joseph Kanon and Alan Furst, in which the voices and stories of the victims themselves provide an intimate portrait of Germany before, during, and after the war.
“The historical elements are compelling. . . . [O]nce involved in the story it is difficult to put it down.” —School Library Journal
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THE BOY NEVER took his eyes off the soldier. The American removed the last Lucky Strike from its packet and tossed the empty wrappings on the tracks. He lit the cigarette and waited for the U-Bahn train coming in from Krumme Lanke station to stop. If the Yank was going only one station up the line to Oskar-Helene-Heim, he'd throw the half-smoked cigarette away as he got out, it would fly through the air in a wide arc, and the boy could retrieve it.
A dozen cigarette butts of that length, once the burnt end had been neatly trimmed away with a razor blade, would earn him forty marks. But if the Yank was travelling further the prospects weren't so good, because then he'd probably tread out that coveted cigarette on the floor of the car or chuck it out of the window, which was open in the summer weather. Yanks were entirely indifferent to such things.
With equal indifference, the US Army quartermaster had ordered that a square mile around the Onkel Toms Hütte U-Bahn station was to be fenced in with barbed wire, leaving only one narrow passage available to German passengers for access. The shopping streets on both the longer sides of the station were off limits too, and had become a centre for the soldiers billeted in the requisitioned apartment buildings around it.
Decades before, the landlord of an inn frequented by people going on excursions to the nearby Grunewald had called his establishment after Harriet Beecher Stowe's affecting novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the Berlin Transport Company adopted the name for the new U-Bahn station built in late 1929. 'Uncle Tom' soon became familiar to the American occupying forces when they arrived in 1945.
The U-Bahn train stopped. The Yank boarded it, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, and slouched against one of the upright poles you could hold on to. Another passenger followed him in and closed the door. The railwayman in the middle of the platform raised his signal disc. The conductor at the front of the train knocked on the window of the driver's cab to pass the message on, and swung himself up into the car as it started moving.
The boy watched the train leave. He had decided not to pursue the cigarette end. As soon as the stationmaster with the signal disc turned his back, he jumped down on the tracks to salvage the empty cigarette packet.
The stationmaster's head appeared above him. 'What d'you think you're doing down there?' he barked.
'Looking for cigarette ends.'
'Found any?' The man was thinking of his own empty pipe.
'No cigarette ends. Only a dead woman.' The boy pointed casually to something beside the tracks.
The stationmaster sat on the edge of the platform, put his disc down and lowered himself, grunting. Two slender legs in torn, pale nylon stockings were sticking out of one of the side bays which, if you bent double, enabled you to reach the cables below the platform. The feet were shod in brown, high-heeled pumps with white leather inserts, currently the latest fashion in the USA. The white inserts bore dark-red splashes of blood.
'She's American. Go get the Yanks.' The man clambered back up on the platform and hurried to his booth, where he took the receiver off its rest and cranked up the phone. 'Krumme Lanke? Onkel Tom stationmaster here. We got a dead woman under platform one. Stop the trains coming through from your end. Message over.'
The boy's name was Benjamin, but everyone called him Ben. He was fifteen, dark-blond, and showed no ill effects of the events of the last few months – the British and American air raids, the chaos of the final days of the war, the havoc as the Red Army marched in. He had filed these experiences away in his head, making room for new impressions. New impressions included Glenn Miller, chewing gum, Hershey chocolate bars and automobiles a mile long, first and foremost the Buick Eight, closely followed by the De Soto, the Dodge and the Chevrolet. New impressions included brightly coloured ties, narrow, ankle-length trousers, Old Spice and Pepsi Cola. All these items arrived overnight when, in line with the agreement between the Allies, the Russians vacated half of Berlin and Western troops moved into the ruined capital.
Ben climbed the broad steps to the ticket windows and walked away down the barbed-wire passage and into the dusty summer heat, which instantly made him thirsty. In his mind he pictured a cold sparkling drink, woodruff flavour. When you took the top off there was a promising pop, and the fizz rose into the air like a djinn from its bottle. But there was no woodruff-flavour sparkling drink available, just the dusty heat and a lingering aroma of DDT insecticide and spearmint chewing gum. Even the smells were different now the Yanks were here.
Ben strolled over to the guard on duty at the entrance to the prohibited area. Haste would have suggested dismay. 'Dead woman on the U-Bahn,' he said.
'OK, buddy. It better be true.' The man on duty reached for the phone.
The call came from the Military Police. Inspector Klaus Dietrich took it. 'Thanks, yes, we're on our way.' He hung up and called, 'The car, Franke.'
'Just heating up. It'll take a good half-hour.' Detective Sergeant Franke pointed through the window at an old Opel by the roadside. It had a kind of sawn-off bathroom geyser fitted at the back, into which a policeman was feeding scraps of wood. When they were burning hard enough they would generate the wood gas needed to drive the engine. There was no gasoline available for the Berlin Zehlendorf CID.
'We'll take the bikes,' Dietrich decided. He was a tall man of forty-five, with grey hair and the prominent cheekbones of those who were living on starvation rations. His grey, double-breasted suit, the only one Inge had managed to retrieve from their bombed-out apartment on the Kaiserdamm, hung loose on him. He dragged his left leg a little. The prosthesis, fitted at the auxiliary military hospital in the Zinnowald School where he'd spent the end of the war, chafed in hot weather. His wound had saved him from imprisonment, and he'd been able to go home in May. Inge and the boys were living with her parents in Riemeister Strasse. Inge's father, Dr Bruno Hellbich, had survived the Hitler years in compulsory retirement but otherwise unharmed. He'd returned to his old position as a Social Democrat district councillor at Zehlendorf Town Hall, and he had been able to get his son-in-law a job as a police inspector. The Zehlendorf CID needed a temporary head, and Klaus Dietrich's pre-war work as deputy managing director of a security services firm and his lack of political baggage, compensated for the loss of his left leg below the knee and his absence of criminological training. In any case, he had soon found out that a sound understanding of human nature was perfectly adequate for dealing with black marketeers, thieves and burglars.
It took them fifteen minutes to reach the U-Bahn station, where their police passes got them past the gathering crowd.
'Oh shit, here comes my old man,' muttered Ben, making off.
An American officer was standing on the tracks with a military policeman and the stationmaster. They had laid the dead woman down on her back. She was blonde, with a beautiful face and regular features. Her blue eyes stared into space. Strangulation marks suffused with blood were notched in her delicate neck. Klaus Dietrich pointed to her nylon stockings, her nearly new pumps, and her fashionable, pale summer dress. 'An American,' he said, gloomily. 'If a German did this there'll be trouble.'
Sergeant Franke scratched his head. 'I feel as if I've seen her before.'
The American officer straightened up. 'Which of you guys is in charge?'
Klaus Dietrich answered. 'Inspector Dietrich and Sergeant Franke, Zehlendorf CID.'
'Captain Ashburner, Military Police.' The American was tall and lean, with smooth, fair hair. His alert, intelligent gaze rested on the inspector. And this is Sergeant Donovan.' The sergeant was a stocky man with broad, powerful shoulders and a crew cut.
Dietrich raised the dead woman's left arm. The glass of her watch was shattered; the hands stood at ten forty-two. 'Probably the time of death,' he commented, beckoning to the stationmaster. 'Who was on duty here yesterday evening, about quarter to eleven?'
'Me, of course,' said the man in injured tones. 'Until the last train, at 22.48 hours, and then again from six in the morning. They hardly give us time for a wink of sleep.'
'Were there many passengers waiting for the last train?'
'Couple of Yanks with their girls, two or three Germans.'
'Was the dead woman among them?'
'Maybe, maybe not. I had to clear the 22.34 to Krumme Lanke for departure. You don't look at the passengers separately. Nobody kind of caught my eye. Only that weirdo with goggles and a leather cap. Like a sky-pilot off on a tobogganing trip, I thought.'
'Goggles and a leather cap?'
'Well, kind of motorcycling gear, I'd say. But I didn't really look close. The lights at the far end of the platform have been a write-off for weeks.'
'So he was standing in semi-darkness.'
'The only one who was, now you mention it. The other passengers were waiting where the lights still work.'
'Did you see him get in?'
'Nope. I have to be up at the front of the train to give the guard the signal to leave. Now excuse me, here's the eleven-ten.'
'Hey, Kraut, take a look.' The MP sergeant handed Dietrich a shoulder bag. 'Not an American, one of yours. Karin Rembach, aged twenty-five. Works in our dry cleaners' shop over there.' He pointed to the shopping centre on the far side of the fence. 'I guess her boyfriend bought her the shoes and nylons in the PX. Man called Dennis Morgan, stationed with the Signal Corps in Lichterfelde.'
Klaus Dietrich opened the bag. Her ID, with a pass for a German employee of the US Army, indicated where the sergeant had gathered his information. He also found a note bearing the soldier's name and his barracks address. 'I'd like to ask this Morgan some questions.'
'A Kraut wants to interrogate an American? Don't you know who won the war?' barked the sergeant.
'I know the war's over and murder's a crime again,' Klaus Dietrich replied calmly.
For a moment it looked as if the beefy Donovan might take a swing at him, but the captain intervened. 'I'll question Morgan and send you the statement. In return you can let me have the results of the autopsy. A Medical Corps ambulance will take her wherever you like. Goodbye, Inspector.'
Sergeant Franke watched the Americans leave. 'Not very friendly, that bunch.'
'Privilege of the victors. Franke, what do you think about this man in the goggles?'
'Either a nutcase, like the stationmaster says, or someone who doesn't want to be recognized. Inspector, why do they keep calling us Krauts?'
Klaus Dietrich laughed. 'Our transatlantic liberators believe we Germans live on nothing but sauerkraut.'
'With pork knuckle and pea purée.' A note of nostalgia entered the detective sergeant's voice. A siren came closer and died away. Two GIs with Red Cross armbands carried a stretcher down the steps. The morgue in Berlin Mitte had been bombed out and was now in the Soviet sector, so Klaus Dietrich had the corpse taken to the nearby Waldfrieden hospital, where his friend Walter Möbius was medical superintendent.
'I'll do the autopsy later,' said Dr Möbius. 'I have to operate on the living while daylight lasts, and then until they cut off the electricity at nine. If you really want to watch the autopsy, we'll have the power back at three in the morning.'
A young man clad in the best pre-war Prince of Wales check suiting nonchalantly lit an extra-length Pall Mall outside the U-Bahn station. Ben looked enviously at the thick crepe soles of his suede shoes. He knew the man slightly. Hendrijk Claasen was a Dutchman and a black marketeer. Only a black marketeer could afford such a sharp suit. Ben wanted a Prince of Wales check suit and shoes with crepe soles too. He imagined himself appearing before Heidi Rödel in his made-to-measure outfit, on soles a centimetre thick. Then it would be curtains for Gert Schlomm in his silly short lederhosen.
The boy walked home from the station, glad to have avoided his father. Papa would have asked questions. In this case, he would have wanted to know why Ben was finding dead women on the U-Bahn instead of being at school. Papa had a quietly sarcastic manner which hit the vulnerable spot.
Not that Ben had anything against school in itself, only its regularity. The chaos of the recent past had brought with it not only fear and terror but adventure and freedom too, and he was finding it difficult to get used to an ordered existence.
He made for the back of the house, went into the shed at the end of the garden, and fished his school bag out from under a couple of empty potato sacks. His grandmother was weeding near the veranda. She had dug up the lawn months ago to plant tobacco. The district councillor was a heavy smoker and she dried the leaves on the stove for him, filling the house with a horrible smell, which was the lesser of two evils. Hellbich was unbearable when his body craved nicotine.
'There's a special margarine ration at Frau Kalkfurth's. Ralf's down there queuing already. Go and take over from him, Ben – your mother will relieve you later. She's gone to the cobbler's. With luck he can repair your brother's sandals again – the poor boy's going around in gym shoes full of holes.'
'OK.' Ben climbed the steep stairs to the attic room he shared with Ralf, and tossed the school bag on his bed. Before going downstairs again he put the empty cigarette packet away with the razor blade in a drawer. He'd work on it later.
There was no one in the kitchen. He pulled out the left-hand drawer of the kitchen dresser, reached into it, pushed the bolt down and opened the locked cupboard door from the inside. Inge Dietrich kept the family's bread rations in that cupboard: two slices of dry bread each in the morning and again at lunchtime. They ate a hot meal in the evening.
Ben hacked himself off an extra-thick slice and clamped it between his teeth, returned the loaf to the dresser, shut the door and bolted it again. Then he closed the drawer and went off to take his little brother's place in the queue. On the way he ate his looted slice of bread in bites as small as possible. That way you prolonged the pleasure.
Frau Kalkfurth's shop had once been the living room of a terraced house in the street known as Am Hegewinkel, 'Game Preserve Corner'. The surrounding streets, all with brightly painted houses, were named Hochsitzweg, Lappjagen and Auerhahnbalz, suggesting images of hides, hunting and capercaillies. A local mayor who was a keen huntsman had given them these names sometime in the past. The garage built on to the back of the house was used to store goods for the shop. It had once held the family car, for the Kalkfurths had owned a big butcher's shop in eastern Berlin. The butcher's shop had long been in ruins, and the car, an Adler, was only a memory now.
The widow Kalkfurth, having worked in a similar line before the war, was granted the coveted permit to run a grocery store after the fall of Berlin. Now, her former trainee butcher, Heinz Winkelmann, stood behind the improvised counter, while she oversaw the little business from her wheelchair, sticking her customers' ration coupons on large sheets of newspaper in the evenings. Someone from the rationing authority collected them once a week. She lived alone in the Am Hegewinkel house: discreet gifts of butter, smoked sausage and streaky bacon to the people in the Housing Department saved her from having the homeless billeted on her.
The queue outside the shop was grey and endless. Many of the women were dressed in old pairs of men's trousers and had scarves over their heads. There were no hairdressing salons these days. Ralf was standing quite a long way back, brushing a broken-off twig back and forth in zigzags over the pavement, while Frau Kalkfurth's tabby kitten tried to catch it. The game came to an abrupt end when a dachshund at the very end of the line broke away and attacked the kitten, which shot off into the garage.
Ralf grabbed the yapping dog's collar and hauled it back to its owner. 'Can't you keep your dog in order?' he asked loudly.
'None of your cheek, young man. Sit, Lehmann!' The man took the dog's lead.
Ralf went into the garage. Old vegetable crates and broken furniture towered up in an impenetrable wall at the back. 'Mutzi, Mutzi,' he called to the kitten. A plaintive mew came from the far side of the lumber. There was no way through. Or was there? The mouldering doors of a wardrobe were hanging off their hinges, and the back of it was smashed. The boy wriggled through. The little cat was crouching on a shabby eiderdown in the dim light. 'Come on, Mutzi. That silly dachshund's back on its lead.' He picked up the frightened animal, which had dug its claws into the eiderdown so hard that the quilt came up with it, revealing the saddle of a motorbike. Carefully, the boy freed the kitten's claws and put the eiderdown back in place. Then he scrambled into the daylight with his protégé.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Berlin"
Copyright © 2003 Karl Blessing Verlag, a division of Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH, München, Germany.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love a good storyteller. The plot in this book is utterly insignificant to the story itself. You will meet five women who are smart, sexy, witty and inventive survivors while at the same time giving you a feel for what it was like to be a German living in Berlin during the period from about 1933 to 1945. I wish I could have met five more. You will also follow a young conniving teen obsessed with two objects of his desire. This is a book for that long cross country plan ride, that rainy or snowed in weekend. Relax settle back and enjoy. This is not a heavy, mysterious or cumbersome read. This is escapism. Lose yourself in this book and you will thoroughly enjoy the time spent.
I found the book to be totally captivating. It is not just a who donit, but a story of the women who were murdered. It gave character and humanity to them they were not just victims. I enjoyed it thoroughly and have recommeded the book to many of my patrons.
Need to get more of his work translated.
I read this book for a RL fiction book group. I enjoyed it very much. It was a quick read, because the story made me keep turning the pages.The story was about a serial killer who was killing blonde, blue-eyed German girls. It was set in Berlin, after the war was over. The killings took place in the American sector, and were near the place where the Americans had set up their fenced-in official enclave. The victims worked for the occupation forces and were killed just outside the fence. What was left of the German police in that area was in charge of investigating, with some-time American help, hindrance and observation. The story was structured a bit oddly. There was the present day with the killings that ran throughout the book, but set into it was the story of each victim as she was found. It told who she was and how she ended up dead. It went back to see their lives before and during the war, as well as how they ended up working for the Americans. Many of the minor people in the backstories were connected to each other, so you learned about their lives too as you saw them in the background of the various victims' lives.Although this is a mystery, it isn't really a thriller type. It was more a look at the lives that were destroyed by the war, and how small actions had large ripples. In many cases the killer just finished the job that the war had started of killing these people. Overall it was very sad, because their lives had started to look better, and then they were dead.The writer did a good job with the setting, and developing the characters. He also showed how tough it was during and after the war for the average German. There were good and bad Germans and Americans. It didn't white-wash the atrocities, but it also showed the liberators as people who were wrapped up in themselves and didn't always care about the suffering of the conquered Germans. From the Americans there was only a small amount of maliciousness, mostly they were too clueless and selfish to care about how they were impacting others. Of course the Russians came across as animals, so they aren't really part of the equation, and were only in the story briefly.The book presented antisemitism as being on both sides, and that there were also those who were against it on both sides. One of the women was connected with a camp, and so the author showed small glimpses of what was done. Another of the women was a nurse and was in a hospital for the 'defective' and it showed that others were also subject to the final solution.The story focused on the individuals and their problems and how they tried with decency and dignity to do what was right, but that they always had to balance that with the need to survive and to keep friends and family alive too.The book was very earthy so there is a lot of blunt talk about sex, and rape. Not sure if I approve or not. I am not a prude but the killer was sexually assaulting the victims first, and to talk abut it each time, to me bordered a bit on the gratuitous side.This book was written in another language and translated, so there are some problems, but that isn't the author or the book's fault.Some words are not translated, or into something the translator knows but the rest of us may not (Zander - Some kind of Fish ?). British English is used in several places so that might be the problem with the unexplained terms. Some sentences make no sense at all, and there are a lot of German names and place-names. The US publisher was too cheap to get an American to clean it up, which is too bad because there are readers who will hold it against the book.The other issue is the pacing, which may be the author's fault (unless the translator just removed the connecting passages). There would be a conversation between some characters, and then the next line was a jump somewhere else with different people. There needed to be something to set up the change and put some distance between scenes. But once you knew that was an issue, it was ea
A murderer attacks in post-war Berlin. Together the new German police and the American occupation troops look for him. It's very interesting how the author explores the lives of the victims in Nazi Germany.
It has been awhile since I have read this book, maybe 7 years, but it's a book I still think about. The story caught me from the beginning and never let go. I enjoy historical fiction, especially WWll stories but this gave such a unique encounter. Each story was intriguing in its own right. I recommend if you enjoy a good murder mystery that holds your attention till the bitter end.
The author is indeed talented creating his characters. Loved learning about each one but then they each would get brutally killed for no rhyme or reason. The same theme followed throughout the whole entire book. Too bad he did not take just one or two of the characters and create a "whole" story about their lives. Would have loved to read a coherent story about these people's lives back then because this writer is really a good writer! I was disappointed and would not recommend this book to anyone. Sorry.
Excellent mystery by a fine writer LLL
Excellent. Grabs your attention right from the start and doesn't let you go. The description of post war Berlin mixed with investigators'search for a serial killer makes this definitely worth reading.