This is not a book to wolf down in one sitting, nor one you can nibble away at in brief bites. It’s too densely detailed and emotionally intense for that. Like a giant supertanker, The Ashes of Berlin takes quite a while to get going – but once you’re absorbed in the plot and characters its momentum is unstoppable. It’s a long, slow examination of the human spirit, not in the extreme heat of combat but during the relentless grind of grim existence in an unthinkable situation.
There are, of course, obscure murders and a troubled investigation; a detective and his devious opponent; organisational conflict and familial strife. All the necessary requirements of an accomplished crime novel are present and correct. But author Luke McCallin side-steps all the page-turning plot devices which typically infest commercial thrillers. There are no chapter-end cliff-hangers, no unreliable narrators. Just good old fashioned intrigue set against an extremely uncomfortable backdrop: the divided city of Berlin in 1947, shattered in substance and spirit.
Given how many excellent authors already paddle in this particular pond, you could be forgiven for thinking that there are no new tales to be told about wartime Germany and the effect of Nazism. Yet McCallin craftily casts new light on this subject – and the Allies don’t come out of it looking exactly spotless, either. In Ashes, there are patriots who were not Nazis: fascists who were not patriots. Idealists whose beliefs were betrayed and who correspondingly turned their coats… only to find their new religion to be equally hollow. There are consequences for all actions and no obvious way for individuals to make amends. And then there’s the unseemly scramble for technology and influence amid the bristling hostility which laid the foundations for the Cold War. 70 years later, we hear the echoes loud and clear.
This is the third book featuring Gregor Reinhardt and, while it works well enough as a stand-alone, to fully understand the nuance of the character you do need to read the earlier two. In particular, Reinhardt’s relationship with his son is especially important. Friedrich was a Hitler Youth firebrand, full of piss and vinegar, who came to despise his father’s generation for the humiliation they suffered at Versailles. This storyline alone encapsulates the cataclysm which all but destroyed German society and brought Europe to the brink of oblivion. It’s geopolitics at the intimate, human level.
Ashes may be the last story about Gregor Reinhardt – but McCallin has introduced several new characters whose future stories beg to be told, not least his trio of spymasters. Idealists, partisans, pragmatists and political animals: I’d love to read more of them.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Ashes Of Berlin by Luke McCallin is available in various formats
Recommended for readers of Philip Kerr, Ben Pastor and Alan Furst
Find A Last Act Of Charity at Amazon