Sleepwalking into the grip of a living nightmare

By Maureen Corrigan
Saturday, November 20, 2010


By Paul Grossman

St. Martin's,

309 pp. $24.99

Talk about a world gone wrong. Weimar Germany in 1932 makes Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles look like a petting zoo. Chandler's Philip Marlowe only had to fend off femme fatales and trigger-happy tough guys. Willi Kraus, the Berlin police detective who stars in Paul Grossman's inventive first mystery, "The Sleepwalkers," has to outwit Nazis - a job made all the more dicey by the fact that Willi is Jewish. No wonder so many of his friends are urging him to get out of town.

But, as an exasperated Willi asks himself: "His family had been here what, since the time of Charlemagne? Why would anyone think he'd just pack up and run? And yet . . . if he really did have to leave . . . where would he go?"

Drawing on historical accounts of the period, "The Sleepwalkers" summons up what must have been the surreal quality and anxious self-delusions of everyday life during the last days of the Weimar Republic. Willi is a decorated "Inspektor-Detektiv" in the police force, a middle-age widower whose two young sons are being raised in luxury by their wealthy maternal grandparents. Everything is settled, even a bit boring, in Willi's world, so long as he can shut out the shouts of the Brown Shirts gathering on city streets and the sudden eruptions of anti-Semitism at his sons' school.

Still, the law is the law. Or is it? Jumping on a city streetcar to reach the scene of a crime quickly, Willi makes the mistake of looking over a fellow passenger's shoulder to read a newspaper headline that asks the frantic political question of the day: "Who Will Lead?" Wrong move:

" 'What the hell do you think you're doing, Jew?' Every head in the streetcar turned. [Willi] looked to see whom the sharp-faced man in a black derby . . . was accusing, then got it. 'Get your dirty Jew nose out of my newspaper!'

"Willi was stunned. He barely even thought of his Jewishness, except on High Holidays. But his dark eyes and curly, dark hair advertised it as clearly as any flashing sign on the Ku-damm. . . . He pulled out his Kripo badge. The change on the guy's face was almost worth the insult.

" 'Oh, pardon me, Herr Inspektor-Detektiv.' The man removed his derby and held it trembling. 'I had no idea to whom I was speaking. I meant nothing by it. . . .'

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