As chilling a thriller as you’ll read this year, set in Hitler’s jack-booted Germany, 1938.
Browne puts his well-received detective series (Inspector Andrews and the Ship of Fools, 2002, etc.) on hold while he takes us on an unsettling ride back to that time of swastikas, storm-troopers, and government-sanctioned thuggery. You’ve been there before, you’ll say, but this ride is different. That’s because Herr Franz Schmidt, chief internal auditor of Bankhaus Wertheim & Co.—German financial institutions don’t get snootier—is different. He’s “[s]hort, small-boned, compact,” physically very far from your basic action hero. In fact, it’s rather a surprise to him that he’s a hero at all, though he is—early evidence accruing when, to his astonishment, he springs to the aid of someone being beaten half to death by a Nazi street gang. That episode costs him an eye, and he’s about to risk much more. For ordinary citizens, it’s an unsettling time in Germany. Those long unemployment lines have ended, the economy is booming, yet gloom and bleakness seem to be its concomitants. Everywhere, there are signs of the Nazi fist tightening. At the bank one day an SS Captain Dietrich turns up insisting that the Nuremburg Laws be enforced, that all employees tainted with Jewish blood be dismissed. Most immediately affected is the lovely Fräulein Lilli Dressler, long-time private secretary to the bank’s General-director and clearly the odious Dietrich’s target. It’s when Franz comes to her aid—again surprising himself—that he sets in motion a series of events that cause him to lose much that is precious to him but to gain something valuable also: a cause.
Utterly convincing evocation of a dread place and time, through characters that engage mind and heart. Brilliant storytelling.