Craig Nova's "The Informer," reviewed by Stephen Amidon
By Craig Nova
Shaye Areheart. 306 pp. $26
It is almost impossible to think about Weimar Berlin without a sense of impending doom. If ever a city was about to be plunged into historical darkness, it was the German capital circa 1930. This ill-fated metropolis is the setting for Craig Nova's powerfully atmospheric literary thriller "The Informer."
For Nova, Berlin is a place where corruption, betrayal and spasmodic violence run through the streets as regularly as the city's S-Bahn trains. The heroine of his story is Gaelle, a young prostitute with a badly scarred face who uses her profession to serve as a spy for several of Berlin's political and criminal organizations. It is a perilous life, made riskier by the fact that the city's prostitutes are being murdered at an alarming rate. Her only confidant is Felix, a 16-year-old pimp whose youth and frailty mask a lethal cunning.
Gaelle's life grows even more complicated when she is approached by Bruno Hauptmann, a well-tailored, champagne-sipping Nazi who asks her to be his informant. She agrees, though she soon decides to play one side of the city's political divide against the other by peddling the same bit of information to both Hauptmann and Mani Carlson, the leader of a violent communist faction known as the Red Front Fighters. Although Mani is initially dubious of Gaelle, he soon sees her as a means of scoring points with his Moscow bosses, who are threatening him with a one-way ticket to the interrogation room over his accounting irregularities.
Meanwhile, Gaelle comes to the attention of Armina Treffen, a female detective charged with investigating the prostitute killings. In the course of her investigation, Armina is discovering the limits of everyday policing in a city where there is little separation between the personal and the political. Gaelle also attracts Karl, a hulking enforcer for Mani's faction, who believes the damaged young woman to be his salvation. Whether Armina and Karl can keep Gaelle from drowning in the city's various lethal tides forms the story's dramatic crux.
While never quite reaching the giddy heights of Graham Greene or John le Carré, Nova admirably combines the virtues of serious literature with a gripping, thriller-like account of sexual and political treachery. His spare prose keeps the reader's eyes locked on the story, even as it occasionally erupts into striking elegance. After Felix washes Gaelle's stockings, he stares down into the tub, where the "soap bubbles broke and reminded him of the slight tick of wet lips as they opened to give a kiss." In the novel's unexpected but apt coda, set in 1945, a swarm of dragonflies unexpectedly descends, looking like "someone was tossing bits of a broken mirror into the air."
Although "The Informer" contains enough suspense to keep the pages turning as if they have been caught in a stiff breeze, its central characters never feel shallow or mechanical. Armina is a particularly fine creation, a woman whose loneliness finds an eerie echo in the fate of the prostitutes whose murders she investigates. As for the disfigured Gaelle, she may at first appear to be the hooker with the proverbial golden heart, but her pain remains too vivid for her to slip into the commonplace. Only Hauptmann, the champagne-swilling Nazi dandy, lacks dimension.
In the end, it is Berlin itself that is the novel's most memorable character. While there is no shortage of violence and dead bodies in "The Informer," Nova mostly sculpts his story with a fine chisel, not a sledgehammer. For instance, during a street fight between communists and fascists, the weapon of choice turns out not to be guns or knives, but potatoes studded with nails.
Most memorably, the impending atrocities of war are prefigured when Armina recalls how, in the worst days of the republic's inflationary crisis, lines formed at a veterinarian's office as dog owners, unable to feed their pets, brought them to be killed. "It seemed to be such a poor solution," she thinks, "killing the animals, as though everything could be solved by death." She has no idea what other sort of final solution is about to come.
Amidon's most recent novel is "Security."