Volker Kutscher, Sandstone Press Ltd, 2016, ISBN 978-191012497 0
I read this book on the iPad while I was away on holiday. I am glad I did. I read it because I had read that it was to be turned into a “period drama television series.” I like to form my own ideas about what characters look like so that I can criticise the scriptwriters, producers and directors who will, inevitably, fail to accord with my views and, therefore, get it wrong. At over 500 pages it’s a longish book but a rewarding one to read. Its plot is just about plausible and its references to motor cars of the period (late 1920s Berlin) seem to be accurate (particularly the Adler Standard 8: I wonder if they will find one of them for the TV adaptation. And since it is crashed with a corpse inside, I wonder how they will stage that).
It seems I was just in time reading the book as there was a review yesterday in Business Insider headlined “Netflix's latest addictive drama is 'Babylon Berlin,' a decadent and dark crime series set in pre-Nazi Germany.” The G and I will be suspending our viewing of Jane the Virgin on Netflix and we’ll be watching this, whose “bingeability factor” is said to be high. Bingeability, by the way and if you are unfamiliar with TV streaming, is what TV streaming is all about: you don’t need to wait for the next episode of anything.
Late 1920s Berlin under the Weimar Republic was perhaps very similar to the “roaring twenties” of New York. And reading this novel gives one a sense of the underlying lawlessness of the Berlin of the time. There was little difference between a nightclub and a brothel, there were drugs and all their associated problems. In addition, there was considerable social unrest. The National Socialist Party (the Nazi Party) was in its infancy although it was becoming an increasing threat. The major challenge to the Weimar Republic at the time was the Communists. All this provides the backdrop for a novel that is, in a way, both narrative and documentary. As I read it I found myself looking up some of the events that are referenced.
The central character, we might call him a hero, is Detective Inspector Gereon Rath who has been re-assigned from the Homicide Division of the Cologne Police force to the Vice Division of the Berlin Police. Rath verges on the unlikeable, certainly he is morally compromised but an imperfect hero makes for a more compelling read. The Vice Division is not big enough for Rath as he gets led from investigating porn into an underground web of Russian gangsters, gold smugglers and Nazi arms dealers. The plot is complicated, there are a lot of characters and at times I found myself getting lost and having to look back a few pages. This didn’t prevent my enjoyment of a well-told story set against the background of a regime that is clearly collapsing.
It will be interesting to see how the dramatisation of the book deals with what we might call “the love interest.” Rath develops a relationship with Charlotte Ritter but the treatment of the romance is almost half-hearted. Indeed, it could have been omitted as it adds nothing to the plot. Babylon Berlin is the first in a series of books so perhaps Charlotte is introduced because she features in subsequent volumes. The series of novels ends (or will end) in 1938. In an interview the author, Volker Kutscher said “it’s more interesting to see how it all starts than to look at the war itself.” As a piece of historical fiction, and fiction written by a German, this could be as good a reason to read the series as any.
This book has been “wildly popular in Germany” (where apparently it was published under the title of Der Nasse Fisch (literally "The Wet Fish”)) and I don’t doubt that it will be wildly popular here, especially once the dramatisation makes its pay from Netflix to free-to-air television. In the meantime, you should read this book and, if you are not a reader, then get a Netflix subscription and watch it there.