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.
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My rating 4/5
Author website http://rebeccacantrell.com/
Publisher Tom Doherty Associates 
Length 319 pages
Format trade paperback
Book Series #1 in the Hannah Vogel series
Source I bought it
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