where the writers are
Genre Blending in Berlin

A Trace of Smoke, by Rebecca Cantrell


During the two years of my MLA studies, I grew into a fascination with the emergence of Germany’s Third Reich – how it happened and why. Since, I’ve looked, beyond historical texts, to fiction relating to the years between the World Wars in Germany, and to the more modern novels of post-WWII.

Cantrell’s book is a venture into a genre blending of mystery and historical fiction – a blend I find near irresistible. In a word, the author has taken up where CABARET left off. Historically, we see a German people still suffering from the debilitating effects of the Treaty of Versailles and the ensuing inflation, coupled with a growing paranoia over the rise of the Nazis.

But this is simply Cantrell’s backdrop. In the foreground we have news reporter Hannah Vogel telling us in first person, first of discovering that her flamingly gay brother Ernst has been killed and dumped naked in the river. But this is no ordinary murder – Ernst has powerful gay friends in Cantrell’s Berlin, and some of them are highly placed Nazis. Hannah soon loses her job over her quest to conceal Ernst’s death as she ferrets out the reasons for the murder.


Cantrell has mastered the gift of creating a page-turner, replete with blind alleys, suspense, near-death experiences – all in the social and political underbelly of Germany between the World Wars. Throughout, however, she overwrites details and feels compelled to over-explain almost everything to her readers. If she can learn to pare her prose, leaving room for the reader, she may very well place her writing up there with the likes of Dennis Lehane.


My rating: 3-1/2 of 5 stars