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Monday, Feb. 7, 2011

From Berlin to Barcelona With ‘The Second Son’

Concluding volume in Jonathan Rabb’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’ traverses Europe on the brink of war

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In the (admittedly small) thriller subgenre of historical European noir, two names dominate: Philip Kerr and Alan Furst. Bringing up the rear and not closing fast, if The Second Son (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is any evidence, is Jonathan Rabb.

Of course, Rabb is something of a Jonathan-come-lately. Kerr and Furst have been turning out volumes for two decades, Kerr with six (soon to be seven) titles that began with his “Berlin Noir Trilogy” featuring 1930s policeman-turned-private-detective Bernie Gunther, and Furst with 11 novels of prewar and wartime espionage.

Rabb has a “Berlin Trilogy,” too, of which this is the concluding volume. The author has moved forward nine years from the second volume, Shadow and Light, to 1936. He brings back the protagonist of the previous two entries, Nikolai Hoffner, a chief inspector in Berlin’s police.

Make that ex-chief inspector Hoffner. He has just been let go—or forced to retire early at 62—because it has come to light that he is, as he says, a “half-Jew,” and even half is too much under Germany’s National Socialist regime.

That leaves him free to investigate fresh woods and pastures new, which is fortunate, because his younger son, Georg, a newsreel photographer, has gone missing in Spain. Hoffner’s relationship with Georg and his older son, Sascha—off working for the Nazis under an assumed name—has long been difficult, though of late he has reconciled with Georg and Georg’s wife and young son.

So off he goes to Spain just as it breaks out into civil war. This, naturally, makes his journey more arduous than it ordinarily would be and involves transferring from one untrustworthy motor vehicle to another and the waving of official-looking papers in the faces of illiterate peasant soldiers and ruthless military officers of various political stripes, from anarchist to communist to fascist.

But there is no arduousness that cannot be relieved by a little ardor, one of the staples, along with labyrinthine plots, of intrigue fiction. Hoffner crosses paths with a doctor named Mila and they do what comes naturally when a man in his 60s and a woman apparently in her 40s travel together in the dusty and trackless expanses of Spain, though both carry such anguishing emotional baggage that their sex seems like a job of work. It is not exactly Robert Jordan and Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The trail eventually leads Hoffner to the whereabouts of Georg, who was not what he seemed to be (nor, in best intrigue fashion, are several other characters). It also leads him to Sascha. Neither father-and-child reunion is a happy one.

Rabb deftly adopts the clipped, sparse noir style, using it (and extensive research) to recreate time and place. It is enjoyable as a reader to put oneself into a Berlin long past or on the barricaded streets of Barcelona at war.

He is not so adept at—or, rather, overworks—the intrigue-novel tendency to back the reader into situations. You know the sort of thing: cryptic references to people who have not appeared and events whose relevance, if any, has not been explained.

Likewise, there are too many elliptical conversations in which responses by one character don’t quite fit the comments made by another but that hint at something dark and probably dangerous. Hence the reader slogs through a continual fog of unknowns. The point is to create a sense of mystery, but mostly it annoys.

While 62 is not a terribly advanced age, even in 1936, it would appear to leave Hoffner little time left to maneuver effectively as a hero of intrigue. Nevertheless, after sending Hoffner back to Berlin for a botched good-bye to his remaining family, Rabb leaves the door open for possible future adventures by returning him to Spain and a life “in the waiting arms of the only faith he had ever known.”
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