Shadow and Light
nolead ends nolead begins By Jonathan Rabb
Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
371 pages. $26

nolead ends nolead begins


Noir to the right of us, noir to the left of us, down the alleys of night go the crime writers. Of late, for instance, we have experienced a surge of "Nordic noir" in the novels of Henning Mankell and a dozen or more other Scandinavian writers. Could we now be witnessing the emergence of "Teutonic Noir/Historical Division"?

Philip Kerr has achieved some renown with his "Berlin Noir" trilogy and two subsequent novels taking place from the 1930s to 1950 and featuring German policeman-turned-private-investigator Bernie Gunther (the latest being A Quiet Flame). In Shadow and Light, Jonathan Rabb brings back his own Berlin policeman, Chief Inspector Nikolai Hoffner, previously seen in Rosa.

Both men are first-rate writers, though I have to say that Kerr has the edge in plotting and in establishing a sense of historical time and place. And Rabb's mood is somewhat more somber, not given to the Raymond Chandler-style wisecracks and similes that Kerr uses so deftly.

Still, the writing in Shadows and Light has the clipped, acerbic sparseness typical of noir (and of its godfather, hard-boiled fiction). Also firmly in place is the hero's romantic entanglement, bruised, tattered, but not quite extinguished.

The author has moved forward eight years from the events of Rosa to 1927. Hoffner is 53 and world-weary (all noir protagonists are world-weary), a widower by dint of his wife's murder in a case he handled, and estranged from his sons Sascha, 24, and Georg, 16.

But into each noir life still more rain must fall, and Hoffner gets soaked as he investigates a supposed suicide at the Ufa film studios that leads to revisiting other dubious suicides. Eventually he is caught up in a maelstrom involving plans by the American studio Metro to take over Ufa (where Georg, having dropped out of school, works); highly secret efforts to develop sound for motion pictures; sex clubs; a severe beating; a Berlin crime syndicate; the Nazi Party leader in Berlin, Joseph Goebbels (for whom Sascha works); and attempts by former monarchists to rearm Germany.

Assisting him in his inquiries, or so it seems at first, is Helen Coyle, an American talent agent for Metro with whom Hoffner has an affair. Along the way he comes across several real-life personages, including the film director Fritz Lang; actor Peter Lorre; and arch-nationalist Alfred Hugenberg, conspiring to bring down the despised Weimar government.

All of this, frankly, grows dense to the point of seeming to revel in its own mystification, especially the maddeningly convoluted plot/conspiracy concerning Metro's designs on Ufa, which somehow are linked to sex films and talking-picture technology. After Hoffner has a conversation with a Ufa employee, we read, "Hoffner no longer knew what he was telling him." The indeterminate "he" and "him" in that sentence could stand for the fogginess of much of the story.

It might be possible, with concentration, to unravel the plot to see if all the threads connect, but I'm not sure it is worth attempting. After all, in The Big Sleep even Raymond Chandler, it has been said, couldn't account for all the dead bodies. In any event, the confusion is largely redeemed by the interesting relationships among compelling characters and the well-imagined atmosphere of a city on the brink of something ineffably scary.

Rabb is working on a third novel in the Hoffner series, set in 1936. It should be well worth the wait.

Roger K. Miller is a novelist and freelance writer. His latest essay, "Living, Though Not Sleeping, With Susan," appears in the New Haven Review.