Review: A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

I’ve had Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke on my shelves forever (well, since Norman told me to get it anyway) but every time my eye rested on the exquisite cover I thought “oh no not another book about bloody Nazis” and read something else (Nazis and gangsters being the two themes I feel like I am done with for this lifetime). I’m not sure what prompted me to actually pick it up now, probably that gorgeous cover that I’m not meant to judge by, but I’m glad I did because on top of it being very good the bloody Nazis are not the focal point of the story.

The book is set in Berlin at the tail end of the Weimar republic, just before Hitler takes power. Hannah Vogel is a 30-something journalist who spots a photo of her younger brother Ernst’s dead body pinned up in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead at the police station when she is checking in as part of her crime beat duties. She is devastated but she cannot tell anyone because she and Ernst have loaned their identity papers to Jewish friends who have tried to escape to America, and this crime will come to light if she identifies Ernst’s picture. So she sets out to investigate the death herself, risking her own safety in unravelling Ernst’s unorthodox life as an openly gay man who works as a cross-dressing night club singer and has a string of influential lovers, many of whom have reason to want to silence him.

For a few pages at the beginning I worried this book was going to be some kind of sensationalist thriller with scenes meant to shock rather than advance the story or explore some nuance of a character’s life but it soon started to take a more sensitive and mature route to its climax. The success of tackling such a potentially tawdry subject matter is due mostly to the development of Hannah as a character who was a wholly believable and engaging person. She had looked after her much younger brother for most of his life and was accepting of his homosexuality unlike her older sister who had virtually disowned Ernst. Still she couldn’t help wishing a different life for him that didn’t involve the ever-present threat of beatings by the brown shirts or imprisonment for what was a crime at the  time and her attitude seemed very natural (though possibly a tad too modern?). Her willingness to go to any lengths to discover his killer, even take on a senior Nazi party official, is depicted believably and, as many crime writers have done before, Cantrell uses the fact of Hanna’s journalism to make her amateur sleuthing more believable than it would be if she were any other kind of normal citizen. She is helped and hindered in her quest by a variety of mostly intriguing and credible characters including a romantic interest (who helps) and the man Ernst had been living with at the time of his death (who doesn’t help). Her meeting with and growing attachment to 5 year-old Anton, who plays a key role in the story’s resolution, is quite wonderful to watch develop over the course of the novel.

The other standout feature of A Trace of Smoke for me is the historical setting which quickly absorbed me with its myriad of tiny, plausible details. Hannah’s needing to lodge her newspaper columns under a male pseudonym, the various indicators of the country’s slide towards legal persecution of Jewish people and other minorities, the woeful economic state lingering after the hyperinflation of the early 20’s are all drawn beautifully and help create the cloying atmosphere in which Hannah must untangle the threads of Ernst’s life.

Although it does take place in a thematically dark setting and has its harrowing passages A Trace of Smoke also has moments of joy and laughter and is all the better for being balanced like that. And even though one or two of those bloody Nazis do make an appearance the book is about much more than them. It’s about good people doing the right thing even (especially?) when to do so is dangerous and it’s about how, sometimes, the things we do for love can win out over the things that are done in the name of hate.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

A Trace of Smoke has been reviewed at Crime Scraps, DJ’s Krimiblog

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 4/5
Author website
Publisher Tom Doherty Associates [2009]
ISBN 9780765326904
Length 319 pages
Format trade paperback
Book Series #1 in the Hannah Vogel series
Source I bought it
Creative Commons Licence
This work by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

This entry was posted in book review, Germany, Rebecca Cantrell. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Review: A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

  1. Bernadette – What an excellent review -thanks. I agree completely that A Trace of Smoke is a really fine read. Cantrell really does her job of transporting the reader to war-era Berlin, and you’re right that she’s a really well-drawn and believable character. I think her character and the setting are my two favourite things about this novel. Glad you liked it, too!


  2. Sarah says:

    I am looking forward to reading Rebecca Cantrell, Bernadette. Thanks for the recommendation. the Weimar republic I think would make an interesting setting.


  3. Mrs P. says:

    Thanks very much for this great review, Bernadette. This one’s now definitely on my TBR list and will be interesting to compare with other writers who tackle a similar period (Kerr and Downing spring to mind). I don’t think I’ve seen a female investigative figure in this kind of novel before and will be really interested to see what the author does with her. Is this the first in a series, btw?

    Thanks for the recommendation!


  4. Mrs P. says:

    Sorry! Just seen above that you give the series info!


  5. Maxine says:

    Sounds great, Bernadette. Like you, I’ve been planning to read this book forever but had been put off by its presumed themes. Thanks to your excellent review, I shall aim to try it soon.


  6. Kathy D. says:

    I am glad to read your review, was looking forward to it. I just hesitate to read about anything related to the Third Reich because of the horrors they waged against the Jewish and other peoples and against Europe and elsewhere. I may try this one, given the raves here and elsewhere. I just hope that Hannah Vogel does not have a Nazi lover; that would kind of turn me off — or, if she does, that she does not know his affiliations. By 1933, Germans know what the Nazis stood for. They erased civil liberties, other political parties, etc.
    So, I’ll take this under advice but retain my right to not finish it.


  7. It also took me a long time to get round to it for exactly the same reason, but of course I should have trusted Norman´s judgment. And the only reason I haven´t read more of Cantrell´s books yet is the 120 other books on my shelves. I will get there one day, though.

    Merry Christmas, Bernadette.


  8. Kathy D. says:

    Thanks Bernadette and Dorte. I may venture forth on starting this one and see how far out of my comfort zone it goes. Yes, Norman does have good judgment in his book recommendations, but I try to be distracted and entertained by my crime fiction reading, not plunged headlong into historic horrors. In other words, I’d like to pile Corinna Chapman books around me right now, the perfect holiday read!


  9. Kathy D. says:

    Want to wish you happy holidays and a great new year, especially with respect to the prospect of wonderful books. And I’m very excited about the Australian women writers’ challenge.
    Your blog and reviews are much appreciated.


  10. Barbara says:

    I like what seems to be a trend lately of setting stories in the lead-up to Nazi take-over of Germany. The danger of the time and country the characters inhabit forces them to show their true selves in brave deeds and real friendship and love. Good stories.


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