Retired German cop searches for his son in Spain as the Civil War begins; this is the last volume in the Hoffner trilogy, after Rosa (2005) and Shadow and Light (2009).
Nikolai Hoffner is a burnt-out case. It’s 1936, and after 35 years hunting criminals in Berlin, the distinguished inspector has been eased into retirement because his mother was Jewish, though Hoffner himself is determinedly secular. The reason for his bone-deep weariness, however, is personal; he feels he has failed his family. His older son, Sascha, is with the Nazis; Georg, the younger, is a photographer for the Berlin affiliate of a British newsreel outfit. As for his wife, he had cheated on her, then allowed her to be murdered by fascist thugs. (All quite murky.) His greatest worry now is Georg, who had gone to Barcelona to cover the People’s Olympics; his wires have stopped coming. Then Hoffner learns his son is a secret agent for the Brits, sent to Spain to expose the Nazis’ supply routes (they’re smuggling guns for Franco). Quixotically, he decides to go after him; another smuggler, associated with Berlin’s underworld boss, flies him down. The complex ex-cop, incorruptible yet easygoing with crime bosses, should have been more compelling; on the page, gruffly laconic, he yields little, and the story takes its sweet time getting going. In Barcelona, an uneasy alliance of anarchists and communists has driven back the fascists. Georg has moved south, but there’s a romantic interest: Mila, a brave doctor, and no chatterbox herself. Symmetry binds them; she too has lost a relative, a brother, to the fascists. They travel together through fascist territory in pursuit of Georg. There are tense moments when Hoffner masquerades as a Nazi, but not enough. In the endgame, Sascha makes a long overdue appearance for a final reckoning with his father.
The well-researched Civil War details elbow aside the family drama, to the novel’s detriment.