Published: May 12, 2010
It may be a sign of our times that Berlin between the world wars, in the period when Weimar gave way to Nazism, seems much on our cultural consciousness. The films of Fritz Lang are all the rage on DVD and in the revival houses; we are much aware of artists like Dix and Grosz, who created the visual equivalent of Kurt Weill’s Berlin theater music; novelists like Alan Furst and, especially, Philip Kerr have found a niche in the deepest shadows of a world that appears to have been born dark, decadent and crippled in about every moral and physical sense one can think of. It was a world in which, ultimately, very little seems to have meant anything, which perhaps accounts for its current resonance. It is the world that Eric Ambler, not much read these days, I fear, "got" so memorably.
With his new novel, The Informer
(available also in a Kindle edition
), Craig Nova offers his own very effective take on that world.
Nova is one of those writers who hasn’t ever really developed a readership of a size that his skills merit. It may be that he is simply too good with words, or that his perceptions are too acute. Whatever the case, “The Informer” indicates a shift in authorial strategy, a movement into a subject matter with its own established genre inflection points that may help open up a market this writer’s talents deserve.
“The Informer” weaves together a number of interlocking character-centered narratives, mainly involving denizens of the night. There is Gaelle, a prostitute whose disfigurement is the key to her seductiveness, and her pimp Felix, who poses as her protector even as he cuts deals for her favors. Gaelle’s beat is the Berliner wald, which is to the German capital’s ladies of the night what the Bois de Boulogne is to their Parisian counterparts. A series of vicious murders has taken place here; these are being investigated by Armina Treffen, a young, attractive policewoman with her own emotional spiderweb to sort out. There is Ritter, an individual who illustrates the proposition that at certain stages of social and political decadence, the scum rises to the top as readily as the cream. Finally, there is Mani, my personal favorite of Nova’s varied and seedy cast, a low-level Communist agitator who has made free with party funds and now must deal with the lethal view that Moscow takes of betrayals of any kind.
Circling around and through these lead players, sometimes leading the dance, at other times merely inserting elements of horror and threat, like a shadowed, bedaggered corps de ballet choreographed by the devil, is a company of secret policemen, Communist and Nazi street fighters, death-arrangers, tycoons and their ladies right out of Kirchner’s paintings. At any moment, one expects to see Peter Lorre rounding the next corner of the Friedrichsstrasse.
Rich as it is in character delineation and exploration, “The Informer” meets the key test of its genre. Ultimately, if they are really to work, novels of a period are about atmosphere. The sense of place and way of living they impart are among their strongest hooks. The reader must be made to feel and hear the night, the anarchic moral and material grubbiness, above all the desperation. The hiss of steam in railroad station, the pointless plotting over a bowl of watery soup, the look of a chancellery or a millionaire’s mansion or a whore’s bed-sit or a cheap cafeteria: oddly, when this genre is well done — and I think Nova has done it well in "The Informer" — the senses of smell and taste are importantly engaged. Berlin in this era stank with most conceivable forms of decay; one can smell that refuse, hear the chatter of the vermin, human and otherwise, that fed on it.
Weimar and post-Weimar Berlin ultimately came to what many saw as inevitable, deserved grief when the Red Army overran the city in 1945. Nova winds up his book with an effective denouement amid the postwar rubble. All get what’s coming to them, deserved or not, contingent or not.
As someone artfully conditioned by Eric Ambler and Philip Kerr and Alan Furst, I happen to be well-disposed toward novels dealing with the secret policeman’s Europe of the 1930s. But they have to get it right. It is not simply a matter of assembling a bunch of old Baedekers and street maps and railway schedules, or of cribbing nonfiction and academic research dealing with the period: art is required. An alternative reality that feels real must be brought into being. Craig Nova is one of those lucky writers gifted with the artistry necessary to pull this off. In “The Informer,” he gets it right.
— Guest Butler Michael M. Thomas, a former investment banker and museum curator, is a bestselling novelist. His most recent novel is Love & Money.