Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Hunting the hunter: avoiding the snares in historical crime fiction

The first two books in the Reinhardt series—The Man From Berlin and The Pale House—were set in Sarajevo, a city I knew well from living six years in Bosnia. Writing The Ashes of Berlin was an entirely different challenge. I only knew that the first trilogy ended there, and it involved Reinhardt pursuing a man who believed justice needed to be served, no matter where and when. And I felt that, insofar as Reinhardt was coming there from far off the beaten track—from the Balkans, which most people take as a by-word for treachery and intrigue—he had better have something interesting to tell us about this place…!

I settled on 1947 as a year that seems to pass between the end of the war in 1945, and the Berlin Airlift in 1948. I look at 1946 and 1947 as ‘quiet’ years. But what was going on…?

I read and researched.

I found avenues of interest, like the fact the Allies outlawed the German armed forces and, at a stroke, made destitute millions of men and their families. No pensions, nothing. What would that have been like, I wondered? How would people have survived that? Many didn’t, I discovered. Suicide rates soared, especially among men. What happened to the families they left behind, I wondered, knowing from my humanitarian work that men and women often faced such existential trials in very different ways…?

I read and researched.

I read about rations, and ration cards. I read about how families were crammed into damaged and insalubrious accommodation. Children went to school hungry, and came home famished. I rediscovered the stories of the millions of refugees—Poles, Balts, Ukrainians and Jews—who lived in shabby camps, cherishing memories of the homes they had lost and dreaming of the homes they might one day find somewhere else. I wondered how to weave those stories into a future Reinhardt novel, one that might bring those stories closer to the work I do now with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. I wondered how close those stories might be to those I had heard from refugees in Chad, in Chechnya, in Mali, in Pakistan.

I went into the National Archives in Kew, and felt like a proper writer. I walked Berlin’s streets, and felt a bit awkward with my maps and camera, and with my pencil stuck between my lips!

Coming up against this veritable tidal wave of facts, this avalanche of materials, clambering over the shoulders of the writers and historians that had come before me, that was when I realised that in writing the Reinhardt novels, I had never really wanted to be taken for a historian of those times, particularly not a historian of Germany and the Germans.

Of course, I wanted to be right about what I wrote about. Of course I wanted to transport you as a reader. Of course I wanted to give you suspense and adventure in far-off, long-ago places like the Balkans.

But it was in deciding how to get my head around the challenge of writing a novel set in Berlin that could be read as a novel that was as true as it could be to the realities of an occupied and devastated city, that I realised I was channeling something else. That with Reinhardt I was trying to get to the human aspects of one man caught between choices. And that with war, and its aftermath, it is too easy to be stunned by the glare of violence, the shatter of ruins, and to forget that most people do no harm but they do receive it, and somehow they carry on.

Fleetingly, haltingly, painfully, in silence, in dignity, in anguish, in as many ways as there are people, they carry on.

Ashes of Berlin by Luke McCallin
1947 and Gregor Reinhardt has been hired back onto Berlin's civilian police force. The city is divided among the victorious allied powers, tensions are growing, and the police are riven by internal rivalries as factions within it jockey for power and influence with Berlin's new masters.  When a man is found slain in a broken-down tenement, Reinhardt embarks on a gruesome investigation. It seems a serial killer is on the loose, and matters only escalate when it's discovered that one of the victims was the brother of a Nazi scientist.  Reinhardt's search for the truth takes him across the divided city and soon embroils him in a plot involving the Western Allies and the Soviets. And as he comes under the scrutiny of a group of Germans who want to continue the war – and faces an unwanted reminder from his own past – Reinhardt realizes that this investigation could cost him everything as he pursues a killer who believes that all wrongs must be avenged...

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