Death in Berlin by M.M. Kaye

Death in Berlin Almost exactly a year ago I read Death in Kashmir, the first in M.M. Kaye’s series of mystery novels. I loved it – in fact, it was one of my favourite books of the year – and last week I decided it was time to try another of her Death in… novels. I chose Death in Berlin because it’s the second in the series (although the books all have different settings and characters and all stand alone).

Death in Berlin, published in 1955, is set in a Berlin struggling to recover from the devastating effects of World War II. The city is divided into zones – American, British, French and Russian – and there are ruined buildings and piles of rubble everywhere. At the beginning of the novel we meet Miranda Brand, who is on her way to Berlin with her cousin Robert and his wife Stella. Robert, an army officer, is taking up a new post there and Miranda has decided to come along for a month’s holiday, keen to have a chance to see post-war Germany. During the journey to Berlin, they and a group of other military families listen to Brigadier Brindley tell a story involving a set of diamonds stolen by the Nazis during the war – a story which has special significance for Miranda. Later that night, the Brigadier is found dead in his train compartment and when a murder investigation begins, Miranda discovers that she herself could be a suspect.

This novel has many of the same elements as Death in Kashmir – a young heroine in danger far from home, a romance with a man she’s not sure she can trust, an eerie and atmospheric setting – but this book didn’t impress me as much as the first one. It doesn’t have the stunning opening chapter that Death in Kashmir has and the characters feel less developed, to the point where I had trouble telling some of them apart. I also thought there was a lack of chemistry between Miranda and her love interest, whom I found very bland.

What I did like was the portrayal of a ruined Berlin in the aftermath of war. M.M. Kaye herself spent some time in Berlin when her husband’s regiment was stationed there, so she could draw on her own knowledge of the city while writing this novel. While it isn’t the exotic setting that 1940s Kashmir is, it does provide a great backdrop for a story of murder and mystery. Kaye really excels at creating a sense of unease and writing spine-tingling descriptions of what it feels like to be alone and vulnerable in dark, lonely surroundings – to be the only person awake in the sleeper carriage of an overnight train or to be sitting downstairs in a large, empty house and hear noises coming from upstairs.

I didn’t guess the solution to the mystery, but I did have my suspicions about various characters. I don’t think it would have been possible to work out everything, though, because a lot of information is withheld from us until the final chapters of the book. This information is provided by one of the characters who, in one very long scene near the end, sums everything up for Miranda and the reader. This is something that works well in an Agatha Christie novel, but feels a bit unnatural here.

While I didn’t like this book as much as Death in Kashmir, it hasn’t put me off wanting to read the rest of the Death in… mysteries. Death in Cyprus will probably be the next one I read, but I also have a copy of Kaye’s historical novel, Shadow of the Moon, which I’m looking forward to reading (and should really have read before now as The Far Pavilions is one of my favourite books).

Have you read any of the Death in… books? Which do you think is the best?

Death in Kashmir by M. M. Kaye

Death in Kashmir I have always thought of M. M. Kaye as an author of historical novels (such as the wonderful Far Pavilions) and although I was vaguely aware that she had also written a series of mystery novels, I had never really thought about reading them. Now that I’ve read the first one, Death in Kashmir, I will certainly be reading the others. What a great book this is!

Death in Kashmir was first published in 1953, but set a few years earlier in 1947, just as India is about to gain independence from Britain. Our heroine, Sarah Parrish, is attending what will probably be the final meeting of the Ski Club of India at Gulmarg, a resort in the mountains of Kashmir. Sarah is hoping for an enjoyable, relaxing holiday but the first sign of trouble ahead comes when another skier has a fatal accident on the slopes. Another death soon follows the first, but this time, the victim – a young woman called Janet Rushton – was able to share an important secret with Sarah before she died.

Sarah is now certain that neither death was accidental but all she wants is to leave Gulmarg and its secrets behind her and have nothing more to do with the whole business. When the skiing party breaks up she visits her aunt in Peshawar and tries to forget what she has learned. Soon, though, her promise to Janet pulls her back to Kashmir where she finds herself caught up in the mission her friend was working on before her death – and this time, Sarah’s own life could be in danger.

I loved this book from the very beginning. It’s so important that a first chapter pulls you straight into the story and this one did, right from the opening line – “Afterwards Sarah could never be quite sure whether it was the moonlight or that soft, furtive sound that had awakened her”. The rest of the story was equally engrossing: a perfect mixture of mystery, suspense, romance and espionage.

The descriptions of Kashmir are stunning. The first part of the book is set in winter on the snow-covered mountain trails of Gulmarg and later the action moves to the Dal Lake in the summer resort of Srinagar where Sarah takes over the lease on a houseboat that once belonged to Janet. Both of these locations are described beautifully, but Kaye also chooses just the right words and images to create a genuinely eerie and unsettling atmosphere. I found myself literally holding my breath as Sarah wondered who was standing outside the ski lodge in the dark, as she watched an unknown figure disappearing up a staircase and as she listened to footsteps on the boards of her houseboat in the night.

What makes Sarah’s situation even more dangerous is that she’s sure the enemy must be one of the group of skiers who were gathered at Gulmarg – the same group who are all now spending the summer in Srinagar. Who should she trust? The hostile Helen Warrender who makes no secret of her dislike for Sarah? The jovial, good-natured Hugo and his long-suffering wife, Fudge? Timid Meril Forbes and her domineering aunt? Or the handsome, polo-playing Captain Charles Mallory? When the villain was eventually revealed it didn’t come as a complete surprise – but I have to admit I had suspected almost everybody at some point, so one of my guesses was bound to be right!

The book is also interesting from the historical viewpoint, being set just before the end of the British Raj and the transfer of powers back to India. Through the stories of Sarah and the rest of the British community in Kashmir, I thought Kaye had perfectly captured the mood of a group of people who knew that their way of life was about to change forever.

I’m now looking forward to reading the other five Death In… mysteries. I just need to decide which one to read next!