The Silent Death by Volker Kutscher

Review published on November 28, 2017.

This is the second Gereon Rath mystery and I can’t wait for more, Kutscher’s writing is addictive. The Silent Death is a literary crime novel that retains a light touch and genuinely lets the reader laugh and thrill.

Berlin 1930: the eclectic cosmopolitan world of Weimar is dying as the vicious political struggle between left and right edges inexorably towards the coming Third Reich. This is an age of decay and corruption and the perfect territory for this dark thriller to explore the human psyche.

In truth, there is more than one silent death here, and one that is horribly noisy too! The title alludes to the end of an era in the cinema. The silent movie has had its day with the coming of the talkie. What now seems like a simple matter of technological progress was terrifying for some people in the industry at the time. Sound was not universally accepted, big stars failed to make the cross over (John Gilbert is perhaps the best known, previously a co-star of Greta Garbo) and even Charles Chaplin tried to hold back the tide by continuing to make silent films for a few years into the talkie era. Kutscher manages to capture the film world in Berlin, conveying the uncertainty of the times. This is also a metaphor for the general social upheaval, modernisation and political change of the times.

Betty Winter, the beautiful leading lady in La Belle Film Productions latest movie ‘Liebesgewitter’, is brutally murdered. It’s a horrible death but a tragi-comic moment, her co-star and husband tries to help the injured star but makes matters much worse – he actually kills Betty. It’s poetic because it is filmic and sets the tone for a dark but witty noir of exceptional quality.

The Silent Death follows Babylon Berlin, which introduced the Köln detective who has been transferred to the Berlin police (the two have been combined for a German series for Sky now showing in the run up to Christmas). In Babylon Berlin Rath investigates the death of an unknown person pulled from the Landwehr Canal. Of course, it gets much more complicated than that. The Silent Death builds on this layered tale, taking the emergence of sound in the thriving German film industry as it’s theme and the uncertainty of the times to plot a first rate thriller. Of course, the novel never strays far from the fact that Germany is a country on the cusp of the Nazi regime. A sub-story involves the death of a nasty little thug, Horst Wessel (a man even the Nazi party is becoming sick of). When he is murdered he is suddenly transformed into an icon for the fascist cause, the Horst Wessel song becomes an anthem the party. Germany is still recovering from WWI, struggling under the financial burden of reparations and the stock market crash. Work is hard to come by, life has sadly less value than it should and extremism is becoming mainstream. This dark period is characterised by serial killer crime that seems to presage the new age. Rath quickly identifies that Winter’s death is no accident but who would want to murder the star: studio rivalry, Nazi atrocity, random violence? The investigation is stalling, then a second film star is murdered, her vocal chords removed. How are these crimes connected? Whatever the answer, you can be sure that the solution reveals something very sinister indeed. There are several twists and turns on the way to keep you guessing in this very satisfying plot.

The Silent Death is a rewarding thriller with a wonderful eye for the detail of the period and the political realities of the city. The police station, the hierarchy, the streets and the bars all come to life. The Silent Death is a clever tale of murder and it is capped off with a fast paced finish that is very dark and yet still in character with the witty nature of the novel.

Kutscher brilliantly captures the cynicism of the age, clearly the research is pitch perfect. The pre-war years and the correlation between serious depraved crime and the Nazis has become a crowded field in recent years. There are many fine examples of good novels if this your interest: Berlin by Pierre Frey, Rosa by Jonathan Rabb and Ice Cold by Andrea Maria Schenkel for example. The Rath novels are a match for them and well worth a read.

There are seven novels in the Gereon Rath series so far (only two in English), this may well become one of the best historical detective series if the standard is maintained. Rath displays many of the qualities of the great loner, he has little respect for authority, he likes to do things his own way, he has a nose for trouble, he has to take his lumps along the way, he quarrels with his colleagues, and he doesn’t trust many people. All of which means we can expect him to get into a lot of trouble with the Nazis in the coming novels. Yet he is a wise cracker like Bernie Gunther in Philip Kerr’s novels and distinctive enough to mark out his own territory.

Paul Burke 5/4

The Silent Death by Volker Kutscher
Sandstone Press Ltd 9781910985649 pbk May 2017

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