“Echoes of my footfalls faded into the damp air of the Hall of the Unnamed Dead as I paused to stare at the framed photograph of a man…. I knew the face as well as my own.”
A Trace of Smoke, by Rebecca Cantrell
#1 in the Hannah Vogel series
Forge, May 2009
300 pages (hardcover)
Even though hardened crime reporter Hannah Vogel knows all too well how tough it is to survive in 1931 Berlin, she is devastated when she sees a photograph of her brother’s body posted in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead. Ernst, a cross-dressing lounge singer at a seedy nightclub, had many secrets, a never-ending list of lovers, and plenty of opportunities to get into trouble.
Hannah delves into the city’s dark underbelly to flush out his murderer, but the late night arrival of a five-year-old orphan on her doorstep complicates matters. The endearing Anton claims that Hannah is his mother… and that her dead brother Ernst is his father.
As her investigations into Ernst’s murder and Anton’s parentage uncover political intrigue and sex scandals in the top ranks of the rising Nazi party, Hannah fears not only for her own life, but for that of a small boy who has come to call her “mother.”
I’ve discussed before the blurry line between mystery and thriller, and while every new book is a potential exception, generally the farther to the mystery end of the spectrum it falls, the less I’ll enjoy it. I rarely read straight mysteries, and even one with the mystique of being set in pre-WWII Germany isn’t something I would have picked up on my own.
However, despite my lack of interest, I was destined to read this book the moment that James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell partnered up for The Blood Gospel. For better or worse, it was inevitable that I would check out the other half of that collaboration.
Whether I was done in by my lack of enthusiasm or not, I’m not sure, but the story didn’t grab me right away. It starts right in on the mystery and introduces a few interesting characters as Hannah starts to dig in to find out what happened to her brother. She’s completely on her own, and it’s not just stubbornness on her part; there’s a legitimate reason she can’t go to the police, one intimately tied to the setting and atmosphere. It all has the makings of a good story, but it wasn’t one I could get into… until the child turns up.
His arrival raises the stakes of Hannah’s investigation. About halfway through the book I started reading with more urgency, and by the end I was fully invested in the story. And the ending is a good one. I’m always pleased when the first book in a series has a satisfying conclusion even as it leaves things open to continue… too often it goes the other way (or maybe I’m just reading the wrong books).
Anyway, I liked it. I don’t have any particular interest in that era, so the historical aspects might mean more to another reader than they did to me. I plan to continue the series, although I’m not in any particular rush to do so. This will probably be one I turn to when I need a break between pulse-pounding thrillers but still want a little intrigue.
Does this sound like something you’d pick up? Mystery and history (at least as a setting) aren’t two genres I usually see teaming up, but what do you think of this hybrid?