Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
368 pages, 2005
The Op Goes Continental
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
Yeah, you read that headline right. Walter Satterthwait's latest period piece, Cavalcade, is a work that not only deliberately conjures up echoes of Dashiell Hammett, but also has the gall to pull it off. Then again, maybe that shouldn't come as much of a surprise -- Satterthwait is one crime writer who actually knows his stuff, and has the chops to back it up.
The laconic, taciturn private detective with the deadpan wit who narrates most of Cavalcade is Phil Beaumont, an obvious -- at least to me -- nod to Ned Beaumont, Hammett's protagonist in The Glass Key. And Beaumont's manner and occupation are clearly intended to stir up memories of not just the Continental Op, Hammett's first great character, but of Hammett himself, who famously worked for "the Pinks" before turning to crime fiction. Beaumont even confesses to being of "Greek descent," just like The Thin Man's Nick Charles. And just in case readers are still missing the point, anyone who's seen a photograph of Hammett will find the physical description of Phil Beaumont strikingly familiar.
But Satterthwait is not content to dish up mere pastiche or the usual historical mystery pursuit of trivia. He has something to say, and he delivers the goods in spades. Cavalcade is, if not the first great mystery novel of 2005, certainly one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking such works -- a rip-snorting tale and a thoughtful, fascinating, hard-nosed take on one of the last century's great evils.
As readers of Escapade (1995) and Masquerade (1998) -- the two previous books in this series -- well know, Beaumont doesn't work alone. Aiding and abetting him in his adventures (and occasionally interrupting and softening his hard-edged narrative with chatty dispatches to her best friend, Eva) is Jane Turner, a prim, proper young Englishwoman, compulsive letter-writer and rookie investigator. She's the major reason that cozy lovers, as well as hard-boiled fans, enjoy this series so much -- Satterthwait being possibly the only writer to have picked up both a Shamus Award and an Agatha. And this powerful new novel stands a good chance of nabbing another of each.
It's 1923, and the Pinkerton Agency has dispatched Mr. Beaumont and Miss Turner, as they oh-so-formally address each other -- despite their obvious mutual affection -- to Berlin to investigate a failed assault on the life of the leader of a controversial new political movement. Their clients? The National Socialist Workers' Party. The intended target? The party's charismatic front man, Adolf Hitler, already beginning his ominous rise to power.
But nothing is quite what it seems, as the tough, streetwise Beaumont and the touchingly virginal Turner (an "impressive woman," Beaumont nonetheless assures us) soon discover. For one thing, this pair have been asked (unofficially) by the London Pinkerton office to keep an eye on "this Hitler chap," even as Beaumont begins to suspect that someone in the London office has slipped confidential information about Jane and him to the Nazis. Still more disconcerting is that their clients seem to have already decided who was behind the botched assassination attempt (evidently it's those "dirty Communists" or "filthy Jews"), and don't seem to be particularly helpful or even interested in the investigation they are financing. But it's the up-close look at the burgeoning Nazi movement (already beset by internal squabbles), set against the desperation, decay and decadence of post-World War I Weimar Germany, full of boot girls and sailor boys, sex clubs and lesbian bars and people starving to death on the streets, that truly reverberates here. As Jane writes, in one of her many missives to Eva, "there is a darkness here, and in the darkness a sickness is spreading." And it's Satterthwait's unflinching look at that sickness that makes this book so oddly compelling and disturbing.
Oh sure, there are the usual clever walk-ons and name-droppings that are more or less expected in this type of book -- Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein, the family of the late composer Wagner, Greta Garbo, Rudolph "Just call me Rudy" Hess, and more name-brand Nazis than you can shake a stick at. And there are plenty of intriguing fictional creations as well, such as Mueller, a Munich police officer who also happens to be a Communist (shhhhh!) and motorcycle nut, and Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl, a big, jolly, beer-swilling translator assigned to Beaumont and Turner by the Nazis, whose views may be repugnant but whom Beaumont can't help liking. Perhaps not surprisingly, though, it's Hitler who steals the show.
I'm not sure how much of Hitler's character is based on Satterthwait's research (which seems considerable, judging by the lengthy list of sources he offers in his acknowledgments), but given subsequent events in world history, I guess it's no surprise that der Führer comes off as -- to put it as mildly as I can -- one sick fuck, the personification of an evil so over the top that at one point it reaches scenery-chewing, Strangelovian proportions -- a rare false step in a book that otherwise rings true every inch of the way. Fortunately, this misstep is more than compensated for by another scene, wherein Beaumont and Turner finally see Hitler in action at a Munich rally. Beaumont's description of Hitler's power to captivate a crowd and manipulate their fears and hatred is deftly handled, utterly chilling and simply one of the most squirm-inducing scenes I've ever read in a crime novel -- and made all the more disturbing by the fact that Beaumont doesn't speak a word of German:
There was no microphone, and he was speaking so softly that no one, probably not even the people in the first row of tables, could make out what he was saying. I heard the creak of chairs, the whisper of clothing, as three or four thousand people, all of them holding their breath, leaned forward.
This scene escalates to near pandemonium and actual violence, but Beaumont seems to be the only one who notices, the last sane man in a world gone mad. Hitler's control and mastery of the crowd is total -- and totally unnerving.
But does anyone really need to be told the Nazis were the bad guys? At its essence, Cavalcade is just a rollicking adventure -- a chase scene through the German countryside that recalls The Great Escape is particularly satisfying -- and romance even rears its ugly head at one stage. Beaumont and Turner make splendid partners, and their tag-team narration, as gimmicky as it may sound, strikes a perfect balance between his jaded skepticism and her uneasy idealism and growing maturity. Satterthwait for the most part avoids turning these players -- even the Nazis -- into stick figures or gross caricatures. As seen through Beaumont's hard, unflinching gaze they come off as real people, and there is a humanity set loose in this book that makes even the most vile of characters, if not endearing, at least recognizable -- and occasionally banally familiar. But that's what makes this third Beaumont-Turner tale all the more harrowing. In our modern world, where far too many powers-that-be still seem intent on fostering divisiveness and manipulating insecurity and hatred in order to achieve their goals, it's something to keep in mind. And it is what makes Cavalcade and the furor about der Führer such a great read, both timeless and timely. | March 2005