Book Review: 'Shadow and Light' by Jonathan Rabb

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By Wendy Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 11, 2009


By Jonathan Rabb

Sarah Crichton. 371 pp. $26

Atmosphere is all in Jonathan Rabb's brooding new mystery, the second in his Berlin trilogy that began in 2005 with "Rosa."

When Inspector Nikolai Hoffner arrives at the Ufa film studios in February 1927 to probe the suicide of producer Gerhard Thyssen, readers can be sure of three things:

(1) The suicide will turn out to be murder.

(2) The inspector will track the killers into Berlin's seamiest quarters.

(3) The clouds of political and sexual corruption hanging over Weimar Germany will darken.

Hoffner has heard of the National Socialists making trouble "somewhere in the south," but their appearance on the national stage in Berlin proves to be a central thread in the web of sex, drugs and dirty corporate deals that he slowly picks apart in the wake of the producer's death. Thyssen was sleeping with an Ufa starlet named Ingrid Volker, who has vanished, but in her apartment Hoffner meets Helen Coyle, an American talent agent who claims Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sent her to Berlin to sign Volker to an American contract.

The pair follow the starlet's trail to a sex club containing a secret chamber where people have been filming some very ugly porn. Hoffner flicks the switch on a projector and sees a vicious rape scene, but the most shocking element isn't the visuals; it's the victim's scream echoing around the room. Eight months before the release of "The Jazz Singer," someone has figured out how to record sound on film -- not on a separate disc that can get out of sync with the movie, but on the film itself. Thyssen was in charge of that top-secret development, but now he's dead, the device marrying pictures to sound has disappeared, and everyone is looking for it, including the real-life star director of the Ufa studio, Fritz Lang.

Meanwhile, Hoffner is such a neglectful father that he doesn't even know 16-year-old Georg has dropped out of school until he stumbles across his son working at the Ufa studio. And it's been eight years since Hoffner has seen Georg's older brother, but soon enough Sascha too turns up -- at a right-wing rally led by Joseph Goebbels.

Rabb's brilliantly plotted narrative leads his detective past dead ends and red herrings to the discovery that much more is at stake than just control of the latest movie technology. Both Coyle and Sascha are deeply embroiled in the conspiracies Hoffner uncovers; only Georg's inexplicable decency and intelligence offer a faint glimmer of comfort for his father, awash in Weltschmerz and self-loathing.

Rabb never strays far from the conventions of hardboiled fiction in his depiction of a sordid society whose worst criminals go unpunished, but he relocates the genre from the mean streets of urban America to the shady byways of a European metropolis soon to be engulfed by evil well beyond the aspirations of crooked cops and venal politicians. A grim early scene in "Shadow and Light" -- when Hoffner visits his dying, unforgiving mother in an old-age home for Russian Jews -- foretells that things can only get worse in the final volume of this projected trilogy.

Rabb writes so well and the mood he creates is so haunting that occasional lapses into noir cliches -- a femme fatale whose betrayals grow steadily more predictable, the inevitable confrontation with an untouchable bigwig -- are more jarring than they would be in a less accomplished novel. Given the psychological and political landmines he's skillfully planted for Hoffner all over Berlin, however, we can expect some spectacular explosions when next we meet Rabb's wounded detective in his beloved, battered city.

Smith is a contributing editor of the American Scholar.

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