A Trace of Smoke (Hannah Vogel Novels)
by Rebecca Cantrell
Forge Books, 2009
List price:$24.95; Amazon price: $9.98; Kindle price: $9.99
Rebecca Cantrell’s debut novel, A Trace of Smoke, introduces journalist Hannah Vogel, who writes under the pen of Peter Weill for the Berliner Tageblatt right at the end of the Weimar period. Readers first meet the Teutonic girl Friday at the The Hall of the Unnamed Dead, viewing photos of recent victims. One photo in particular captures her attention: the naked corpse of her gay and transvestite brother Ernst, a cabaret performer at one of the gay clubs in Berlin.
Found on a riverbank, Ernst wasn’t just a drowning victim, but appeared to have been murdered. After viewing the photograph, Hannah is determined to investigate her brothers murder, and what initially seems to be a tragic death evolves into a never-ending maze of Berlin’s underworld mixed with Nazi politics.
Surprises pop up for Hannah about her brother and his sexual escapades, but the big one is five year-old Anton who is left at Hannah’s doorstep, claiming that he is Ernst’s child. Perplexed that her gay brother had fathered a child, Hannah’s quest to find her brother’s murderer is interrupted in trying to locate the child’s mother. The situation grows more complicated when Hannah discovers that Ernst kept a priceless ruby ring that belonged to well-known and very wealthy Nazi sympathizer and a collection of love letters from the head of the SA–Ernst Roehm.
Cantrell does a fine job in creating the seamier side of Weimar Germany, but the plot chugs along to a silly and predicatable denouement. After a certain point, the reader stops caring who killed the superficial Ernst, why he has the letters, and who are Anton’s parents.
Cantrells characters, for the most part, lack any nuances and include Hannah’s childhood best-friend is now a house-frau married to a policeman. The rich suitor Boris and the blonde moppet Anton-who captures Hannah’s heart–are all characters that should have been further developed.
Perhaps A Trace of Smoke would be a better book for readers who have little knowledge of the period in question, but for those who have studied Weimar Germany and the rise of the Nazis, A Trace of Smoke lacks the suspense of a very dangerous time in modern history.