Wickenden introduced his Berlin detective Max Becker in a short story Girl Hunter earlier in the year (currently available as an eBook). Set in the summer of 1960 it follows Max and his team as they track a serial killer preying on young girls. Like Girl Hunter, Angel Avenger is a dark story, it’s the first full novel in the Max Becker series and takes place later in the same year. This time the team delve deep into the city’s turbulent past to understand why someone is killing men across the city. Angel Avenger has an intriguing premise and Max and his team are an interesting crew to spend time with. The novel is well plotted and maintains a good pace. Angel Avenger is an historical novel that opens up a window on Berlin at a fascinating time, recovering from the war, the scars are mental and physical, and the Russians will soon be putting up the Wall, such will have ramifications for future cases.
Berlin, 26th April 1945. The girl is desperate to save her brother, she does her best to forget her own assault, all she can think of is saving his life. She knows Dr. Mann and his wife are hiding in a nearby cellar. She bangs on the door shouting for help for her wounded brother. When the people inside realise they can’t ignore her because she may draw the attention of the Russians they decide to let the children in. Dr. Mann and a neighbour remove the barricade and quickly pull the two strays inside. With luck the Ivans are still sleeping off the excesses of the night’s violence and mayhem. The boy is badly hurt, he’s been shot and taken a knock to the head, the doctor patches him up but whether he can survive or not is in the lap of the gods. Dr. Mann asks one of the women to help the girl. Eventually the children curl up together, she implores her brother to live.
Sunday, 11th September, 1960. Manfried Bikart leaves his regular, a bierkeller in Wedding, and stumbles the mile or so home. He doesn’t notice he is being followed, it’s not the first time his routine has been observed, this time is different, this will be the last time. When Bikart crosses the footbridge into the Russian sector he is whacked on the head, there are two assailants, the big man bundles Bikart into a van. They drive him to a derelict house, they strip him and chain him up. It’s a while before he comes around, then Bikart hears:
‘You have been found guilty in the People’s Court and sentenced to death for your crimes. You sick, filthy, Soviet pig!’
Bikart denies being Russian, claims it’s a case of mistaken identity, but then the torture begins.
‘What is my name?’ says the big man. Bikart wonders if it’s Dimitri, he is quick to claim he never informed on Dimitri to the Stasi. It’s not Dimitri, he would be much safer with Dimitri. The big man asks Bikart for his real name and calls him a liar when he repeats ‘Bikart’. The next threat makes him confess, his real name is Dedov Damir Olegovich. The big man tells him:
“You know, you and your friends should have killed us all.”
A pistol shot under the chin ends it. The killers bundle the body into the van, they take it to Spandauer woods and tie it to a tree. Early the next morning Alda Bendik and her German shepherd, Flik, find the body. The local police cordon off the scene and call homicide, Kriminalhauptkommisar Becker is in charge of the case. The body has been mutilated and castrated, a sign hung around his neck reads:
‘M – The Blood of the Sin – C’
The torso appears to be covered in Russian tattoos. Becker reports back to his boss, August Dehler, then Max gets his team; Bastain Döhl, Ottilie Jäger, the first front-line woman detective in Berlin and Dr. Paul Schmidt, pathologist, on the job. Max is aware that if they don’t catch the killers soon more people will die.
Angel Avenger is not in the class of Philip Kerr, Volker Kutscher, nor is it as thrilling as David Young but it is entertaining and interesting. There are a couple of things I’m not so keen on in this novel, but that may be a very personal thing. The pace is steady but not fast, often the case in the first novel in a series (introducing characters). I think there is a little too much detail that doesn’t sit within the plot but interrupts it, Angel Avenger doesn’t wear it’s research as lightly as a more accomplished novel would. There are also occasional numbered footnotes that could perhaps be covered in a glossary at the back of the book.
Clearly Wickenden has researched his subject thoroughly and the novel feels authentic to the period and place, a lot of readers will find this fascinating. I see plenty of scope for Max Becker and his team to develop in future novels in the series. Choosing 1960 means that the war is still a theme of the book but the developing Cold War come into it too. This distinguishes the novel from the more crowded field of pre-war and wartime German thrillers.
Paul Burke 3/3
Angel Avenger by Tim Wickenden
Slugado Press 9781916104839 pbk Jul 2019