Just in time for the release of the German-made Netflix series of the same name is the translation of the first of Volker Kutscher’s crime fiction series set in Berlin in late 1920s on which the series is loosely based. Both series, are based around the exploits of homicide policeman Gereon Rath, who in this first volume has recently been moved to Berlin after an incident in his home town of Cologne.
After a cold open involving torture and suicide, the story moves to Rath’s work with the Vice Squad. While he was homicide detective in Cologne, his move to Berlin has resulted in a bit of a demotion and he is keen to get himself back investigating murders. His break comes when it turns out that an unidentifiable body fished out of a canal is the same Russian who came to his door, looking for the man who used to live in his rooms. Rather than sharing this information with his colleagues, Rath decides to investigate himself, hoping to use this investigation to leverage himself into homicide. In the process he starts a relationship with Charlotte, the stenographer of one of lead homicide investigators, who is studying law at nights and seeking a more important role in the police force than taking dictation. The investigation leads him to a plot involving Russian dissidents, organised crime, police corruption and an actual treasure.
Babylon Berlin ranges across Berlin, from the cinemas, restaurants and cafes to the underground nightclubs, brothels and strip joints. Kutscher manages to capture the freewheeling spirit of the age. But the plot also explores the growing spectre of Nazism among disaffected soldiers who fought during the First World War and who want to reestablish their country’s dominance. And at the same time, the growing threat of communism and the official panic at any display of communist affiliation.
While Kutscher very occasionally and briefly shifts points of view, the protagonist is Gereon Rath. And while he is a competent investigator he is not a particularly likeable person. Rath is constantly out for himself, only considering after the event what effect his actions might have on others. He drinks, takes drugs on occasion and lives at the edge of his means. But this just serves to make him the perfect guide to this place and this period in history and certainly hanging around with Rath is never boring. Interestingly, the TV series changes Rath’s character, backstory and motivations to make him no less troubled or iconic of the age but far more sympathetic.
With so much crime fiction on our shelves coming out of English speaking countries or Scandinavia it is refreshing to find a different voice using the tried and true elements of the genre to explore their own history. Much like Pierre Lemaitre’s French crime fiction, this makes Kutscher and the exploits of Gereon Rath a welcome addition to Australian shelves.