Laura's Reviews > A Trace of Smoke

A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell
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's review
Dec 01, 2009

liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, mystery, noir
Read in November, 2009

I had to add a new shelf just for this book: "noir". And when I think about it, there doesn't seem to be a setting as perfect for a noir mystery than Berlin in the 1930's. It doesn't even need any embellishment by the author to create the atmosphere of unreality, violence and decay. Or as the dictionary says: "a genre of crime literature featuring tough, cynical characters and bleak settings". Well, I don't know that they come much bleaker than Berlin during the rise of the Nazi party. Even reading about it can put a knot in your stomach as the little things - precursors to Germany's military aggression and "final solution" - appear in the novel.

Hannah Vogel is a single woman in 1931 Berlin. A firm Socialist, she is appalled at the power she sees accumulating around the Nazis, but still believes that there is a limit to what they can eventually control and that Germany will come to it's senses and that they will eventually be voted out of power. At least she feels that way at the beginning of the novel, by the end, although she has no real idea how far things will go, she has admitted to herself that they are out of control and she is no longer certain how they will end.

While A Trace of Smoke remains Hannah's search to find out what happened to her murdered brother, the book is fascinating and hard to put down. However, about half-way through the picture broadens and national politics come into play - potentially history changing politics - and that is where my interest began to wane. I'm not much for "international spy thrillers" or other books that use the entire world as their playing field, I'm more interested in ordinary people and their lives, but in this case it was an even more jarring change than it would have been in another book. 1930's Berlin was a very personal place, full of personal fears that could not be discussed safely and personal secrets that could not be discussed at all. Everyone's lives shrank as their fear grew. When Cantrell's focus began to broaden to include events on a larger scale, it broke my immersion into the time period and I began to feel distanced and my attention wandered. After all, we know how things turned out for Berlin and the Nazi's on a larger scale - there is no suspense involved.

That said, A Trace of Smoke is Rebecca Cantrell's first novel and I enjoyed it enough that I will pick up her second.
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