It’s my habit to display a picture of the front cover of the book I’m reviewing. Unfortunately, my copy of The Man from Berlin features a large and prominent swastika on the front cover, so I’ve chosen to display the back cover instead. I’m also experimenting with a new style of review that includes multiple quotes from the book. Please tell me what you think!
I don’t know how this is a debut novel. Nor do I know how many months (if not years) of historical research McCallin poured into this book before he began to actually write it. Anything involving the history of Balkan countries is byzantine by nature, and the various ethnic, political, and religious factions that make alliances and then clash in McCallin’s vision of Sarajevo, Yugoslavia in 1943 are no exception.
Padelin: “The Orthodox have been trying to get [him] out. That is ironic, no?”
Padelin: “An Orthodox priest trying to get a [Serbian] Communist out of an Ustaŝe prison, helped by a Muslim and a Catholic? But that’s this city for you. There is the world, and there is Sarajevo. A world of itself. Rules you never understand. A community you will never be a part of.”
I’ve always loved books with a strong sense of place, and The Man from Berlin has that in spades. The descriptions of Sarajevo are lush and filled with mingled wonder and wariness, as Reinhardt looks upon the city and its varied peoples with the heart of a romantic and the mind of a soldier. He is definitely an outsider here, and is never allowed to forget it.
I actually have a lot of sympathy for Reinhardt, which is something I wasn’t expecting since he is, after all, a German Abwehr officer and a policeman working for the Nazis. I was really pleased with Reinhardt’s character arc through this novel and how his detective work forces him to confront all the things he has been sidestepping and deliberately overlooking.
…and so the question [Reinhardt] could not avoid answering much longer was, what made him keep going the way he was? Serving a cause he detested, in a uniform he hated, in an army he could not respect, with men he did not think he could fight for, feeling his convictions falling away one by one.
I think my main problem with this book is that it’s hard to approach as a newbie to the World War II section of historical fiction. You need to have a decent grasp of German military politics and Balkan identities to really understand what’s going on. I was okay for the latter but really shaky with the former — there is the military intelligence branch that Reinhardt is a part of, there’s the military police, there’s the secret military police, there’s the Gestapo, and then there’s the Wehrmacht, the SS, and a subsection of the SS called the Einsatzgruppen who were even more horrific than the usual run of SS… and some of the branches don’t get along. It’s all very convoluted, and at some points I felt like I needed to keep a chart with all of the characters’ different affiliations. Obviously, I’m not well-versed in this area of history, and I’m sure there was some amount of nuance that went over my head.
The political reality of Yugoslavia at this time involves intense pressure to pin crimes on “degenerates” such as Communists, Jews, non-cishet people, and Roma, and as such there are a lot of coerced confessions to crimes. McCallin acknowledges this, and there’s a good amount of discussion in this book about what it means to be a good police officer. The Man from Berlin was first published in 2013 and wasn’t intended to make commentary on the situation with police brutality in America in 2020, but it does.
“If a policeman is allowed to act without restraint — to the boundaries of what is permitted, and perhaps even beyond — will he do so? If not, what will constrain him? What holds him back? Will the law, will his society, his conscience, show him clearly not every goal sanctifies every means? And perhaps even there are means that cannot — ever — be sanctified.”
The only thing I think was handled poorly in this book is that there are a lot of flashbacks to Reinhardt’s time in the first world war and his career as a detective in Berlin prior to the second world war. I’m not a fan of flashbacks, and these felt especially jarring to me and disrupted my reading experience. However, these became fewer in the second half of the book.
The Man from Berlin has a lot of twists and turns, and I never knew what lay around the next bend in the plot. The beginning was very engaging as Reinhardt, his investigation, and Sarajevo itself were introduced (the setting has such a strong presence that I almost feel it’s a character). The middle sagged a little bit, and I found myself thinking, “I will make myself read as far as page 300 today,” but around page 300 things really started to move, and before I knew it I was at page 370 and The Man from Berlin was drawing toward a close. And what a finale! Everything is set up for the next book in the series, and when I’m next in the mood for a World War II-era mystery I will definitely return to the adventures of detective Gregor Reinhardt.