Crime Fiction: Blackout by Simon Scarrow

I’m a huge fan of crime novels set in Europe during World War II. Although the deaths of Philip Kerr and, more recently, J. Robert Janes have lessened the supply of high-quality stories in that field, British author Simon Scarrow has stepped up with Blackout (Kensington), the top-notch opening installment in a Berlin-set series featuring Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke of the Kriminalpolizei.

Like Kerr’s protagonist, Bernie Gunther, Schenke steers clear of Nazi affiliations. That makes him an ideal candidate to investigate the rape and murder, in December 1939, of Gerda Korzeny, an erstwhile actress of part-Jewish descent who’s linked romantically with Third Reich propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. If Schenke, with his minor aristocratic background and history as a race-car driver (before a crash ended his career), should expose anything too uncomfortable to Adolf Hitler’s fascists, he’s dispensable.

It doesn’t take long for what had appeared to be a straightforward homicide inquiry to become something more bewildering, with additional corpses turning up amid the German capital’s newly instituted blackouts and suspicions brewing that the person responsible for this string of slayings may be prominent in the Führer’s regime.

In addition to providing a thoroughly captivating mystery, Scarrow (best known for penning Roman historical fiction) captures the peculiar subtleties of Berlin in those early days of the war, before its citizens realized what privations would result from Hitler’s arrogant aggressions. He doesn’t have quite the wit Kerr boasted, nor is his man Schenke such a contradictory and watchable figure as Bernie Gunther. But Scarrow has said that he’s working on more than one sequel to Blackout, so he’ll have more time to find this series’ stride. I very much look forward to grabbing up his next entry, Dead of Night, which is due out in the UK early next year. ◊

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