In Germany Before the War (with a nod to Randy Newman, here)
It seems that stories about World War II and Nazism are about a dime a dozen these days, relatively speaking, in the world of film. The local art house cinema where I live in Ottawa, Canada – the Bytowne Cinema – seemed to have a new war-related picture last year just about every month, whether it was Flame and Citron, Max Manus or even Inglourious Basterds.
However, on the literary front, debut novelist Paul Grossman, best known as a freelance journalist for Vanity Fair and Details, has taken a radically different approach to the story of Hitler and his minions. Rather than write a tale that takes place in the ‘40s, he has rewound the clock and approached the topic of Nazism from the very beginning of their ascent to power circa 1932. It’s an unusual tact, but ultimately a refreshing one, as the fall of the Weimar Republic serves as the backdrop to his gripping, suspenseful novel, The Sleepwalkers.
Essentially, the story is a detective yarn about a Berlin police inspector named Willi Kraus, who is not only high ranking in the police force, he’s practically a celebrity in high society for bringing to justice a brutal child killer who seems to have a passing resemblance to the real-life Düsseldorf killer Peter Kürten. He’s also a decorated World War I vet, which opens many doors for him during his investigations.
As the story opens in 1932, Willi is tasked with finding out who killed a beautiful young woman who’s body was pulled from the Havel River. As he unravels the case, it seems that this woman, who had her limbs surgically altered, and many others were seen sleepwalking through the streets before vanishing into the ether, and a popular hypnotist – one who is the personal clairvoyant to Hitler – might be behind the murders. If he didn’t already have his hands full with this case, Willi is given another assignment to find out what’s happened to a missing Bulgarian princess, a politically-sensitive case that has to be investigated on the hush-hush.
So, Willi might be busy, but there’s just one. little. problem.
Willi is Jewish.
It doesn’t take much to figure out that being a Jewish person living in Berlin in 1932 is not exactly a cakewalk, with anti-Semitism growing as the Nazi party becomes more and more determined to take power. In fact, time and time again, Willi meets fellow Jews who are bailing on the country – getting out when the getting out is good. Still, Willi is determined to pursue justice to the very end and pull double duty on his caseload, which leads him deeper and deeper into Nazi territory as the story progresses, proving to be a bit of nail-biter not only in terms of will he or won’t he not only find the murderer and the disappeared princess, but in terms of whether or not he will make it to 1933 literally in one piece.
Let’s be clear: this isn’t a leisurely-paced literary rumination on absolute power corrupting absolutely as the material might suggest. Heck, aside from charting the rise to power of Hitler and some of the unfortunate events that went along with that, such as the burning of the Reichstag, the novel isn’t even historically accurate – something the author more or less acknowledges in his afterword. This is flat-out pulp fiction, a populist and entertaining read that keeps the pages whipping by unrelentingly.
Truthfully, I’m not sure what this book is doing out in hardcover, because this is the type of fare best suited to the paperback racks of drugstores and supermarkets across the land. For instance, if there’s one thing Grossman is not yet a master of, it’s subtlety. The sleepwalking murders are only just a metaphor for the state of Germany some 70 years ago, a point that the author pretty much beats you over the head with at one point, using a heavy mallet to do so.
There’s a ‘Gee Willikers’, ‘Gosh’ and ‘Wow!’-style of writing found in lightheaded pulp from the ‘40s and ‘50, especially in the form of Willi’s police underling Gunther, who is only too happy to take his boss’ orders with a spring in his step – to the point where the character almost becomes annoying. What’s more, there is a whack of setup-punch lines, like the following one, sprinkled throughout the novel: “He suddenly felt as if dark hands were weaving a web around him. And he was a stupid fly.”
If you can get past the outmoded writing style, though, The Sleepwalkers is a taunt, gripping, and relentless read. It’s full of literary MacGuffins and red herrings, not to mention the odd plot twist, and it will keep you turning the pages, guessing as to what will happen next. That said, true suspense isn’t built on the unknown; it’s knowing that something evil lurks around the corner that keeps you biting your nails. Thus, anyone with just a rudimentary knowledge of German war history and how the National Socialist Party came to take over the country will be kept enraptured as Willi walks the slippery slope towards what could be his own doom.
Throughout the novel, you keep expecting something bad to happen. Eventually, it does, to a greater or lesser extent. You may find yourself screaming at Willi to get out of the country before it’s too late, even though that would make for one pretty short book, as our stubborn-headed protagonist keeps wandering down the path that he believes will lead him to expose the Nazis to the world as the terrible, evil force that we now know that they were. While this ratchets up the tension considerably, it also has the effect of making our hero out to be a little bit of an idiot for not saving his own skin (he has children—all who, thankfully, manage to get out to France alive). It’s a fine line that Grossman walks, in making our hero to be someone who is a little less than sympathetic in his determination, but ultimately the pages keep moving forward with the hope that maybe things will work out in the end, at least for the main character.
There’s a certain noir-flavour to The Sleepwalkers, too, in that the city of Berlin becomes a primary character of the book. Grossman has clearly done some research, and paints the city as a cross between the Old World with its classical architecture with its gates, parks and opera houses, and a slick, modern metropolis teaming with neon, glass, modern highways and nightclub-class debauchery.
It’s a city populated with famous characters, as well, and here you’ll meet – in cameo form – the likes of Marlene Dietrich, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, Leni Riefenstahl, and even Adolf Hitler himself. While the star power is a little distracting, it’s not nearly as disorienting as a subplot involving a romantic tryst between Willi and a morphine-addicted prostitute who is heavily into masochism. This aspect of The Sleepwalkers is a little juvenile and sophomoric, and doesn’t really further the metaphors that Grossman is trying to explore pertaining to loss, grief and human suffering. (Willi’s wife died two years before the events of this book takes place.)
Still, despite its warts, The Sleepwalkers comes as a highly entertaining, energetic, engrossing read. Even though it’s a fantastical yarn, and one that delves into an array of genres such as suspense and, by novel’s end, horror, Grossman has an important story to tell of one man’s pursuit of what’s morally right in the face of gut-wrenching paranoia and the unrelenting, unfettered hideousness of what men can do. Don’t read this novel at night if you want to get some sleep. It will keep you glued to the page.
More importantly, The Sleepwalkers serves as an important reminder of the atrocities that occurred in Germany only a few generations ago, even well before the Holocaust, which is more than enough to keep you from getting shuteye. The novel so mesmerizing—I’m hopeful that Hollywood is paying attention it.