The Fatherland Files is a first-rate historical thriller and Gereon Rath is one of the most intriguing detectives in fiction. If that’s not enough for you: the setting is both sexy and terrifying, reflecting fading Weimar Berlin bleeding into the Nazi dictatorship. Kutscher makes us fully aware that the image of gaiety and frivolity that we have of the period masks the reality for most people; poverty, unemployment, deprivation, a breeding ground for radical politics. In the midst of it all is Rath, a born survivor. If you’re not au fait with the Gereon Rath novels but you have an interest in pre-WWII history these books bring the past vividly to life. Rath, to use an old fashioned word, is a picaresque hero. He is descended from a long line of PIs and lone wolf investigators (Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe), but Rath is also a surprising character. Just when you think you know how he will act he does something that is shocking, which gives an edge to the stories, this is particularly true in The Fatherland Files. Few crime authors manage to define their characters’ anomalies (the stuff that runs counter to his usual character but makes him human) as well as Kutscher does here with Gereon Rath. Of course, this is murder and the mystery at the heart of The Fatherland Files is satisfyingly layered and complex but very, very readable. Kutscher is a stylishly writer (something conveyed brilliantly in the translation by Niall Sellar). Still, even in the lightest moments of The Fatherland Files the coming of the Third Reich is like a black wave that slowly engulfs Rath’s world, this is a thoroughly engrossing noir.
Fans of Bernie Gunther will love Gereon Rath; even though they are very different characters they both open a portal on the moral ambiguity of the age and the dilemma of living in such turbulent times. Sadly, this year saw the publication of Philip Kerr’s last Gunther novel, Metropolis, set in 1928. It coincides time-wise with Gereon Rath’s first outing, Babylon Berlin. The Fatherland Files is set four years later approaching the time when Kerr’s March Violets is set. Effectively, Rath and Gunther joined the kriminal polizei homicide squad at the same time, they work for the same man, inhabit the same environment. However, put the two series of novels side by side and it is fascinating how different they are, with very different author perspectives of the same period. But, equally, there are common aspects that make them both must reads: fantastic storytelling, clever plotting, an insight into a past world, a clever subversion of the PI/detective trope… I could go on. One of the things about Rath is that he is about to step into the world that we know Bernie Gunther survived because most of his stories are set post-WWII. Part of the enjoyment of Kutscher’s latest Rath novel is seeing how he changes and imagining the influence the Nazis will have over the coming books – will he adapt enough to thrive under Nazism?
At the end of Goldstein, the previous novel in this series, Rath was missing Charly, his lover, she’s in Paris. At the beginning of The Fatherland Files he is still underestimating the Nazis and showing his disdain for politics, but that begins to slowly catch up with him, he just doesn’t fully realise it yet. The Fatherland Files is set in the approach to the 1932 election, and one of Rath’s flaws, there are plenty, is that he doesn’t see the approaching nightmare. He’s personally ambitious and, as the novel opens, completely preoccupied because Charly is coming home.
So preoccupied that, even though Rath is the duty inspector, Detective Gräf can’t reach him when a body turns up at the Haus Vaterland, owned by the Kempinski group. Vaterland is a vast pleasure palace employing 1,100 people; bars and booze (Wild West, Turkish cafe etc.), girls and boys, dance and drugs, you name it. Rath is at the train station waiting for Charly; it’s not yet six in the morning but he has plans; go to bed with Charly, of course, but also a champagne proposal. Charly is overwhelmed, but saved by the bell, as Gräf finally reaches Rath and he is called to the murder scene.
It’s a strange death; the man found dead on the lift floor by one of the Vaterland chefs is Herr Lamkau, a minor supplier. He appears to have been drowned, but how? There is no sign that the body was moved, no water nearby and the lift is four floors up. Rath is still thinking of Charly, he wants her answer, and he soon disappears from the crime scene again but when he gets home Charly is gone. The next time they meet it’s at police headquarters, Charly has joined section G as a cadet (mostly women and children affairs). When she gets seconded to the murder squad and Rath’s investigation, keeping their relationship secret becomes a problem.
Rath works for The Buddha, the great Ernst Gennat (a man who modernised German homicide investigations and is a genuine police legend). The Buddha knows things, he’s smart enough to want Charly, who previously worked as a stenographer for the homicide squad, on his team. He has also made a connection between Herr Lamkau’s murder and a suspicious death in Dortmund, which changes the direction of Rath’s investigation. As Rath is drawn out of the city, first to Dortmund but then to East Prussia, he finds out that it isn’t just the killer with a vested interest in stopping the police uncovering the truth.
Twelve years earlier: 1920, Tokala is a loner, he lives in the forest, he observes the people at the nearby lake, few enter his woods. One day he witnesses a terrible crime and unable to stand the violence he runs away, deep into the forest.
The Rath series are a fascinating chronicle of pre-WWII Germany. The Fatherland Files is a particularly twisty tale, with a rapidly changing political backdrop as the dawn of the Third Reich nears. Berlin’s glory is little more than a facade and chaos, violence and tensions are rising on the streets. Rath’s investigation places him in grave danger in East Prussia, the disputed area with Poland. This is a story of murder, revenge, nationalism, racism and, of course, love.
The relationship between Rath and Charly is integral to the novel and truly absorbing. Even though Rath fits the mould of the lone detective perfectly, Charly is up to her neck in this case too. Rath’s desire to go his own way and his ego ride rough shod over everyone else before the case is solved. The Fatherland Files sees Rath encountering some nutty moral issues in his personal and professional life, naturally choosing to resolve them in his own inimitable fashion. The novel is beautifully crafted and researched, the dynamic vibrant corrupted city is being crushed by the Nazis as they gain the upper hand on the communists. Stealthily grasping the reins of power by infiltrating the higher echelons of the bureaucracy – there is a police purge coming. Kutscher brings us the smell of the street, the bars and cafes, the restaurants and the hotels but also the train journeys, border crossings and the forest. He brilliantly captures the cynicism and the hope of the age.
The Fatherland Files is gripping and inventive. I am already looking forward to the next instalment, which is due next year.
Paul Burke 5/5
The Fatherland Files by Volker Kutscher
Sandstone Press Ltd 9781912240562 pbk May 2019