He understood that there were different versions of the truth. Every police officer knew that, with each trial it was experienced afresh.
The war is fresh in people’s memory and mourning; the monarchy has been reduced to porn pin-ups; Hitler is “that strange bird with a Charlie Chaplin moustache”; Himmler and his dreaded SS are nowhere, it is the SA which is the predominant right-wing organisation; the Tsarists and Trotskyists have taken refuge in Germany while Stalin’s operatives search for them; the Communists are gaining ground and there is fear that soon there would be a Soviet Germany…. Welcome to Berlin 1929.
Detective Gereon Rath has been transferred from Cologne to Berlin. In Cologne, he was part of the homicide but the unfortunate killing of a trigger-happy youngster who was the son of a newspaper baron has hounded Rath out of Cologne to the Vice-department squad of Berlin police force where he faces the prejudices of the Homicide officers. Keen to show his mettle, Rath begins a private investigation into the killing of a man whose body is fished out of a lake. This takes him to the various dark haunts of Berlin where drugs, sex, booze are all part of life. And then he realises that the police department too is implicated in the crime.
This book begins well with the thoughts of a man who has been tortured but is about to turn the tables on his sadist captors and by the middle, the book had turned into a real page-turner. Rath too is a sympathetic character in the beginning who I thought had been dealt a bad hand while he was just performing his duty. Also I don’t think I have ever read a police-procedural set in Germany, so it was interesting to see how the police force works in Germany.
However, the author introduces too many characters (who are addressed by their first name, surname, and nicknames which added to the confusion: There is one character who is called Bruno, Wolter, and Uncle throughout the book), organisations – both legal and illegal; and plot points so that the novel loses its way in the many labyrinths that Rath frequents. Rath himself becomes unlikeable so that by two-thirds of the novel, I was weary of it and just wanted it to end but at around 500 pages it took some real determined reading to finish and really would have benefitted had the author avoided certain episodes which do nothing to add to the novel. The romance for once was totally avoidable especially since it reduces our hero to an adolescent. Also while the historical details might be accurate, the use of expressions like “arse-hole” completely destroyed (at least for me) the evocation of the vintage era.
This book had been on my wishlist for long as I had heard that it has been made into a series which has garnered a lot of praise but after being disappointed by the book, I think I’ll not read the series any further. I might watch the series though.
Have you watched the series or read the book? Do you think I have been too harsh on it? Would you recommend continuing with the series? And if somebody could explain the title, I’d be very thankful.
First Line: When would they return?
Original Title: Der nasse Fisch. Gereon Raths erster Fall.
Original Language: German
First Published: 2007
Translator: Niall Sellar
Series: Gereon Rath #1
Trivia: Besides a TV series it has also been turned into a graphic novel.
Other Opinions: Berlin-Noir, ReviewsbyWriters, Riveting Reviews, The Old Shelter
My first entry for the German Literature Month 2021.
3 thoughts on “#Germanlitmonth: Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher (2007)”
I’ll admit, Neeru, that I haven’t read the book. But I have seen the television series. Even there, I noticed that there are a lot of characters and plot threads. That does make things complicated! Still, as you say, there’s real tension in the story, and a fine look at Berlin in those years.
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Margot, too many plot threads for my liking. I have heard the TV series is better than the book. The setting is one I like: Germany b/w the wars but sometimes you feel that you are in a contemporary crime-ridden metropolis.
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