Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada

The war had destroyed everything, and all that was left to him were the ruins and the ugly, incinerated detritus of former memories.

For this year’s German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, I decided to read a book by one of my favourite German authors, Hans Fallada. Nightmare in Berlin was one of his final novels, written just before his death in 1947, and although I don’t think it’s as good as some of his others – particularly Alone in Berlin and Little Man, What Now? – I did find it an interesting and powerful read. This 2016 translation by Allan Blunden is the first time the book has been made available in English.

Nightmare in Berlin begins in the spring of 1945, just as the war ends and the Red Army march into Berlin. Dr Doll, who had been a successful author before the war, and his much younger wife Alma, live in a small rural town and, unlike most of their neighbours, choose to welcome the Soviet troops into their home. Doll is rewarded by being appointed mayor of the town, but soon finds that he is being viewed with suspicion and resentment by his fellow Germans. Eventually, they decide that it’s time to move back to Berlin, having fled from the city to the countryside during the war. When they arrive in Berlin, however, they discover that someone else has moved into their apartment and that it’s going to be much harder than they’d expected to pick up the threads of their old life.

As Doll sets out to look for help in finding somewhere to live and in getting medical treatment for his wife’s injured leg, he is struck by the greed and selfishness of many of the people he encounters, who think nothing of cheating other Germans to get what they want. Disillusioned and depressed, Doll is overcome with shame and apathy, beginning to despair for Germany’s future.

In this time of the country’s collapse and defeat, no feelings last for long; the hatred passed away, leaving only emptiness, deadness, and indifference behind, and people seemed remote, out of reach.

Although this is obviously quite a bleak novel, it does have its more uplifting moments: there are times when Doll is shown some kindness and compassion, restoring his faith in human nature at least temporarily. The relationship between Doll and Alma is portrayed as a warm and loving one, so that no matter what is going on around them, they know they can always rely on each other. However, the Dolls are also both reliant on drugs, taking morphine and sleeping pills to escape from reality and get through the day, and the middle section of the novel follows their experiences in the hospitals and sanatoriums where they are being treated for their addictions. This part of the book was of much less interest to me (I wanted to see more of post-war Berlin, rather than the inside of a hospital) and I felt that it seemed to come out of nowhere – drugs were never mentioned until the Dolls left their rural town to return to Berlin and yet they had apparently both been addicts for a long time.

Nightmare in Berlin seems to be a very autobiographical novel. Hans Fallada (born Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen) struggled with morphine addiction himself, as did his younger second wife, Ursula Losch. Like Dr Doll, he was appointed mayor of a small country town shortly after the Soviet invasion and then spent the remainder of his life going in and out of hospital. I think the book might have worked better as non-fiction rather than a novel, but maybe Fallada found it easier to write about his own experiences by disguising them as fiction. Still, this is a fascinating novel and worth reading for the insights it offers into the mood of the German people in the aftermath of the war.

This is book 24/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Strangers in the House by Georges Simenon

Since enjoying my first Georges Simenon book, The Man from London, last year, I’ve been looking forward to reading more. I had intended to try one of his Maigret books next, but the opportunity to read this one came up first; it’s a new Penguin Classics edition of a novel originally published in 1940, The Strangers in the House, and is translated by Howard Curtis. Unfortunately, at 224 pages in the paperback version, it’s just slightly too long to count towards Novellas in November!

The Strangers in the House is one of the many standalone novels written by Simenon that are described as romans dur, or ‘hard novels’. I’m not entirely sure what that term means, but as far as I can tell, it refers to the dark, noirish atmosphere, and the hard, bleak lives that the characters are leading. And the life of our protagonist, Hector Loursat, is certainly bleak! Once a successful lawyer, he fell into a depression when his wife left him eighteen years earlier and turned to alcohol for comfort. Since then, he has spent his time sitting alone with his books and a constant supply of red wine, living in the same house as his daughter Nicole, but barely aware of her presence.

Loursat’s miserable, solitary existence continues until, one night, he hears a gun being fired inside the house and discovers a dead body in one of the bedrooms. When Nicole and her friends become implicated in the murder investigation, Loursat is forced to acknowledge that his daughter is now a stranger to him…or is it in fact Loursat himself who is the stranger in the house?

There’s a detective fiction element to this novel, as Loursat sets out to uncover the truth behind the murder. When suspicion falls on Nicole’s lover, he agrees to defend the young man in court and finds that getting involved in the legal profession again gives him some purpose in life. However, although we see Loursat speaking to the suspects, getting to know Nicole’s circle of friends and learning all he can about the victim, this is not a conventional mystery novel and not one that the reader has much chance of being able to solve. If you’re expecting a story with clever twists and surprises you’ll be disappointed; even the court scenes which take up about half of the book lack suspense.

The book is much more successful as a psychological study of a lonely, reclusive man who is forced to confront his own behaviour and gradually engage with the people and things he has neglected for years. Watching Loursat’s reawakening as he becomes aware of the things that have been going on in his own house without his knowledge is fascinating. Whether or not he finds redemption and whether it’s too late to repair the damage to his relationship with Nicole I will leave you to discover for yourself, if you read the book. All I will say is that Simenon’s storytelling is realistic, unsentimental and ‘hard’.

Have you read this or any of Georges Simenon’s other books? Which can you recommend?

Thanks to Penguin Classics for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Crooked House by Agatha Christie

September’s topic for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story featuring a school’. I’ve already read the obvious choice, Cat Among the Pigeons, so I was grateful to the challenge hosts for providing a list of alternative suggestions. Crooked House doesn’t involve an actual school, but it does fit the general theme as it features two children who are being home-schooled.

First published in 1949, this was apparently one of Christie’s own favourites; in the foreword, she says that ‘practically everybody has liked Crooked House, so I am justified in my own belief that it is one of my best’. Now that I’ve read it, I can say that although it’s not one of my absolute favourites, it would definitely be in my top ten so far. It’s one of her standalones – with no Poirot, Marple or other famous detective – and, like several of her other novels, has a title inspired by a children’s nursery rhyme:

There was a crooked man, and he went a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile;
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

The ‘crooked house’ of the title is a mansion in the quiet London suburb of Swinley Dean and the people who ‘all live together’ there are ten members of the Leonides family. When the family patriarch, old Aristide Leonides, a Greek businessman, is found poisoned by his own eye medicine, suspicion immediately falls on his second wife, the much younger Brenda. It would certainly be more convenient for the rest of the family if Brenda could be proved to be the murderer – none of them like her and believe her to have married Aristide for his money – but so far there is no real evidence against her. Aristide’s eldest granddaughter, Sophia, is desperate to know the truth as she feels it won’t be fair to marry her fiancé, Charles Hayward, while a scandal is hanging over her family. As it happens, Charles is the son of the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard so, joining forces with Chief Inspector Taverner, the detective assigned to the crime, he sets out to solve the mystery so that he and Sophia will be free to marry.

One of the things I loved about this book was that the murderer really could have been anybody. Brenda is initially the main suspect as there are hints that she has been having an affair with Laurence Brown, tutor to Sophia’s younger siblings Eustace and Josephine, and would therefore need Aristide out of the way. However, Aristide’s eldest son Roger also appears to have a clear motive involving money and the company business, while his younger son Philip could have committed the murder out of jealousy. Then there are the brothers’ two wives, Clemency and Magda, and a spinster aunt, Edith de Haviland. Any of these people could have had reasons for wanting the old man dead, as well as the knowledge and opportunity to carry out the crime. At no point does Christie become too concerned with the technical details of the murder or get bogged down with discussions of alibis and timings, concentrating instead on motives, personalities and relationships – my favourite kind of mystery novel!

I didn’t guess who did it, of course. The correct solution did cross my mind once or twice, but I dismissed it as unlikely because I was so convinced that it was somebody else. I’m annoyed with myself for not working it out as I can see now that the clues were all there in plain sight!

Next month’s Read Christie theme, if anyone wants to join in, is ‘a story set on a mode of transport’. I’m probably going to read Death on the Nile, but there are plenty of others you could choose, including Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds or The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Book 3 read for R.I.P. XVI

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

August’s theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set by the seaside’, which seemed the perfect opportunity to pick up an unread Poirot novel, Evil Under the Sun. It’s set on an island off the coast of Devon, where Hercule Poirot is on holiday at the exclusive Jolly Roger Hotel.

Christie begins by introducing us to all of the people staying at the hotel, including Arlena Stuart, a beautiful former actress. Arlena is described by one of the other characters as ‘the personification of evil’ – and she certainly seems to be causing plenty of trouble. Fellow guest Patrick Redfern can’t take his eyes off her and Arlena appears to be encouraging his attentions, regardless of how hurtful this is to Patrick’s young wife, Christine. Arlena’s own husband, Captain Marshall, claims he hasn’t noticed her behaviour, but is he telling the truth? Meanwhile, Marshall’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage hates her stepmother and resents the way she has come into the family home, bringing scandal and unhappiness with her.

When Arlena’s dead body is found at Pixy Cove, a secluded part of the island, almost everyone becomes a suspect. It’s fortunate that Poirot is already on the scene and can begin investigating immediately! In fact, as he later tells his friend, Captain Hastings, he had begun even before the murder took place…

Hastings said, staring: “But the murder hadn’t happened, then.”

Hercule Poirot sighed. He said: “But already, mon cher, it was very clearly indicated.”

“Then why didn’t you stop it?”

And Hercule Poirot, with a sigh, said as he had said once before in Egypt, that if a person is determined to commit murder it is not easy to prevent them. He does not blame himself for what happened. It was, according to him, inevitable.

Having just read three Miss Marple novels in a row for Read Christie, it made a nice change to get back to Poirot for this month’s read. I usually prefer the Poirots to the Marples and Evil Under the Sun – first published in 1941 – is another good one. Setting the story on a private island, for the use of the hotel guests only, is not just an atmospheric setting but also a clever one as it immediately limits the suspects to those already on the island at the beginning of the book. With his understanding of the kind of person Arlena was, Poirot is quickly able to pick out one suspect as the most likely culprit, but due to timings and alibis it seems impossible that this person could have committed the crime. As the novel progresses, more clues emerge, along with the usual red herrings and misdirections Christie likes to throw in our way!

I didn’t manage to solve the mystery, but once the solution was revealed I could see how perfectly all of the clues fitted together – like a jigsaw puzzle, as Poirot describes it. It did seem that the way in which the crime was carried out depended on a lot of good luck and on people behaving in a certain manner, but I still think Christie was fair with the reader and I have no complaints. I’m now looking forward to September’s book, which will be Crooked House.

The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy

First published in 1941, this is the third book in Helen McCloy’s Dr Basil Willing mystery series. Although I’ve been reading the books in order so far, it’s really not necessary and you could start anywhere. I think the first one, Dance of Death, is still my favourite but this one comes close.

The Deadly Truth begins with biochemist Roger Slater being visited in his laboratory by the glamorous Claudia Bethune and telling her about a new drug he is developing: a ‘truth serum’ based on scopolamine. After Claudia departs, Roger discovers that one of the tubes containing the drug has disappeared; aware of Claudia’s love of practical jokes and of the drug’s dangerous properties, he sets off in pursuit but, by the time he catches up with her, it’s too late. Guests are arriving at Claudia’s house for a dinner party – and are about to be served a very special cocktail.

Later that night, Dr Basil Willing, who is renting a beach hut on Claudia’s land, thinks he can see flames through the window of the Bethunes’ house and decides to investigate. It turns out there is no fire, but what he does find inside the house is just as shocking – Claudia, slumped at the table, strangled by her own emerald necklace. As the details of the dinner party begin to emerge, Basil learns that, having had their drinks spiked with the truth serum, each guest had revealed truths about themselves that they would have preferred to keep secret. Now that the effects of the drug have worn off, can Basil separate the truth from the lies and identify the murderer?

Helen McCloy’s novels all have such unusual and intriguing plots! They may seem far-fetched and unlikely at first, but really the murder in each one is just a starting point for McCloy to introduce some fascinating psychological and scientific themes and ideas; in this book, as well as the discussions of truth and lies, there’s also an interesting exploration of sound and deafness. As a New York psychiatrist, Basil Willing solves the crimes through his understanding of the human mind, looking at personalities and motives rather than spending too much time on technicalities such as alibis, and this is the kind of mystery novel I prefer. Basil does have some specialist knowledge which plays an important part in the solution of this particular mystery, but even without this knowledge the clues are there for an observant reader to pick up on. Unfortunately, I was not observant enough and allowed the red herrings McCloy drops into the story to lead me away from the correct suspect!

I think Helen McCloy is one of the best of the ‘forgotten’ crime authors I’ve discovered recently. She also seems to have been quite prolific; there are ten other Basil Willing novels and lots of standalones, so I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Left-Handed Death by Richard Hull

I loved Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt – it was one of the best books I read last year – but when I tried another of his classic crime novels, And Death Came Too, I was disappointed to find that it was a much more conventional murder mystery without the humour and originality I had expected based on my first experience. Left-Handed Death is my third Hull novel and I’m pleased to report that it’s another good one – not in the same class as The Murder of My Aunt, but much better than And Death Came Too.

This book was published in 1946, but is set slightly earlier, just before the end of World War II. It begins with Guy Reeves, one of the two directors of the Shergold Engineering Company, returning to his office after lunch and making a shocking confession to his co-director, Arthur Shergold: he has just murdered Barry Foster, a civil servant who has been investigating the company’s finances. Foster may have been on the point of revealing corruption within the company, something which matters to the Ministry he works for because the Shergold Company have been supplying government contracts throughout the war.

Reeves describes his actions of the afternoon to his partner, finishing with a detailed account of how he carried out the murder, then he heads to Scotland Yard where he repeats his confession to the police. Inspector Hardwick doesn’t believe him – why would somebody voluntarily admit to murder? – but he sends his men to Foster’s home where they discover that Foster is indeed dead and that it’s entirely possible that the murder could have taken place exactly as Reeves has described it. There seems little reason to investigate further, but Hardwick still has his doubts and sets out to prove that Reeves is innocent.

All of this happens in the first chapter of the book and I was immediately intrigued. Why would Reeves confess to a murder that he hadn’t committed? On the other hand, why would he confess to a murder that he had committed? And if he didn’t kill Foster, then who did? As Inspector Hardwick himself points out:

“I like my murders to start at the beginning with the corpse and go on to the end with the conviction. But when you start in the middle with the confession – well, all I can say is that it’s all wrong!”

As I continued to read, I started to form my own theory about what was happening and I was able to predict the solution before it was revealed, but I still enjoyed watching Hardwick and his fellow detectives sorting through the clues, looking for alibis, speaking to witnesses and gathering medical evidence. I thought the ending did let the rest of the book down slightly, though – surely there was room for one or two more twists!

As well as being an entertaining murder mystery, I found this book interesting because of the time period in which it is set. The story takes place right at the end of the war and that has an impact on the lives of the characters and on just about everything that happens in the novel. Guy Reeves’ description of the lavish meal he and Foster ate on the day of the murder, for example, provokes disapproval at a time when rationing is in place; the war makes it difficult to get hold of a doctor to examine the murdered man; Cynthia Trent, who works as a secretary at the Shergold Company, takes a walk in the countryside past an Italian prisoner-of-war camp; and Reeves himself has suffered an injury while serving in the army which has implications for the way in which the murder is carried out.

I will continue to read Richard Hull’s books in the hope that the others will be at least as good as this one, if not as good as The Murder of My Aunt. I suspect I probably started with his best book, but that doesn’t mean the others aren’t worth reading!

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham – #1944Club

This week, Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their clubs for which bloggers read and write about books published in one particular year. This time the year is 1944 – an interesting one, as not only are there lots of intriguing books to choose from, but it’s also the first wartime year to be featured. I had a few options on my TBR and decided to start with this one, Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven, which has been reissued by Persephone.

The novel is set in Canada during World War II and, through the story of Erica Drake and Marc Reiser, explores some of the prejudices, inequalities and divisions which existed at that time. Erica is a twenty-eight-year-old journalist working for the Montreal Post, while Marc is a lawyer in his early thirties. The two are immediately drawn to each other when they meet at a cocktail party – it’s literally love at first sight and Erica is sure her parents will like him too. But when she attempts to introduce him to her father, Charles, she is horrified and embarrassed when Charles refuses to even look at Marc, let alone speak to him.

Erica struggles to understand her father’s reaction, but Marc is not at all surprised. The Reisers are a Jewish family whereas the Drakes are English-Canadians and these two groups – along with another major group in Montreal society, the French-Canadians – simply don’t mix with each other. However, Erica’s brother has recently married a French-Canadian and despite Charles Drake’s initial disapproval, he has accepted Tony and Madeleine’s relationship. Erica is sure that, in time, he will come to accept Marc too. To her disappointment and frustration, though, her parents don’t want to get to know Marc and aren’t interested in what he is like as a person – all that matters is that he is a Jew. Charles explains that he doesn’t want “a son-in-law who’ll be an embarrassment to our friends, a son-in-law who can’t be put up at my club and who can’t go with us to places where we’ve gone all our lives”.

Despite having grown up in Montreal, Erica has never given much thought to the level of division in society as it’s not something which has ever affected her directly. Marc, on the other hand, is under no illusions; he has been encountering attitudes like Charles Drake’s all his life and he knows exactly what he and Erica can expect if they get married. He tries to make Erica see what their lives would be like, but she is determined to stand by him no matter what.

Marc is very likeable from the beginning, which makes Charles’ attitude towards him all the more upsetting, while Erica is also easy to like and admire. Although we do see things occasionally from Marc’s point of view, it is through Erica’s eyes that most of the story unfolds and Erica who has the most to learn. Her relationship with her father is as much a part of the story as her relationship with Marc; she has always considered him a friend as well as a father and so it comes as a shock to her to find that he is so determined to oppose her wishes. At the same time, she becomes uncomfortably aware that she herself has prejudices of her own.

Earth and High Heaven is a fascinating novel; as so much of the story consists of various characters discussing their views on racism, prejudice and intolerance, it could easily have felt like nothing more than a polemic, but that never happens, which I think is largely due to the two main characters being so appealing and sympathetic. I cared about both of them from their first meeting in the opening chapter and I felt that the issues explored throughout the story arose naturally from the situations in which they found themselves.

This was a great read for the 1944 Club – and one which is still important and relevant today. I loved following Marc and Erica through all their ordeals, hoping and wondering whether they would find a way to be together in the end.

~

I should have another 1944 book to tell you about later in the week, but for now here are a few reviews I have previously posted of books published in that year:

Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer
Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp
Dragonwyck by Anya Seton
Towards Zero by Agatha Christie
Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes