Book Review: “A Trace of Smoke” by Rebecca Cantrell

A newspaper crime reporter scans the photographs of the unnamed dead found drowned in a river, posted in a police station. One photograph particularly catches her eye; she recognizes it as her brother. He had lived a colorful life, performing his drag act and associated with several perhaps dangerous gay lovers – at this point, perhaps this sounds like a formula for many a contemporary novel, but for Hannah Vogel in A Trace of Smoke, things are far from formulaic. It is 1931 in Berlin, the Nazis are on their way to power, and, furthermore, she and her brother have lent their identity papers to a young Jewish couple who are at that very moment escaping to New York. Add a father looking to bring justice to the rapist who attacked his daughter, and a child with a birth certificate claiming Hannah and her brother are his parents, and the scene is set for a story that includes its fair share of surprises.

Rebecca Cantrell places her story with research and attention to detail, and not more than a little homage to such iconic portrayals of 1930's Berlin as Cabaret. The result is the events are effectively placed against a backdrop of real places and events, however without too much in the way of dry factual details. This results in a portrayal which is evidently a work of fiction: in fact, the actual historical background seem very unobtrusive and perhaps a little sparse. For the reader expecting a historical novel, this may be somewhat disappointing; there are just enough details provided, but only just. At first I struggled with this and wanted more, but after a while the reason for this becomes clear. Location is secondary to character in this novel. The end effect in fact is that the backgrounds are portrayed very much in gray, almost as if they were shot in black and white, with the characters standing out in bold color. In particular, there are splashes of red throughout, signifying passion, intrigue, and of course blood. These splashes of red reminded me very much of the way that odd glimpse of color was used in Schindler's List, or to denote something supernatural as in The Sixth Sense. It comes across as a very effective part of the storytelling. The factual and historical background is dour; the characters themselves deliver the color. For the curious, there is a welcome glossary at the end of the book.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the story is the overall pace at which the story unfolds. At first, the tale is somewhat slow and sluggish. The narrative has to fill out the background information for Hannah and her brother, and their fellow characters in the story, somewhat mechanically at first. It seems to take a few chapters for things to get started. Again, this may be disappointing to the reader at first, but it results in a clever build-up of pace that is maintained for much of the thirty chapters. It seems Hannah's challenges increase, step-by-step, one at a time, throughout the book, reaching a breakneck pace for the big resolution of the story. Before long, what could have been a murder mystery plot brings in potential blackmail, priceless gemstones, a scandal involving a high-ranking Nazi, the peculiar child who believes Hannah to be his mother, and enough loose ends to draw us towards a conclusion which leaves just as many questions answered as unanswered, ready for the sequel, The Night Of The Long Knives.

Above all, the outstanding part of this novel is the sympathetic character of Hannah Vogel herself. It would be very easy for a novel in this setting to portray every one of the Nazis as wicked and evil, but Hannah's eyes are just as capable of seeing good and evil in all the characters she meets, even each of the growing list of suspects in her brother's murder. In particular, she finds herself very much aware of the contradictions that many of the characters face when trying to reconcile their lives and beliefs with the events that unfold around them. The story is very much one of conflicts between prejudices, and one which is far richer in the intricate relationships between human beings than their politics. Hannah is an absorbing heroine, and not without her own flaws; her fellow characters are all multi-dimensional, resulting in an enthralling and captivating read.

Interested in A Trace Of Smoke? If you have a Nook or compatible eReader software that can read LendMe books, my copy of A Trace Of Smoke is available to borrow. Just join or log in to bookfriend.me, and search for the book. If it's still available, it's yours to read for one week.

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About darlingman1970

Born in the UK and a graduate in mathematics from Cambridge University, Chris Nash has followed a career in software engineering which he continued after moving the United States in 1996 and now brings him to California in 2010. However, Chris does not want to be considered as merely a code monkey, and has always been interested in writing; in areas as diverse as factual technical manuals all the way through to fiction. An avid reader, Chris is a fan particularly of mystery novels and enjoys above all the works of Agatha Christie and David Hewson. Chris has recently gone through some significant life changes which, at the moment, he is considering as the basis for a forthcoming novel and as food for thought on his blog. He manages to couple his loves of writing and technology and is particularly interested in how internet innovations have an impact on the writing and promotional process. Chris is a firm supporter of Creative Commons and other 'open' initiatives and believes strongly that such distribution mechanisms are the "right" way to handle intellectual property in an evolving digital world. Chris is a keen Nintendo DS and Wii player in his spare time, and is currently happily attached, living in the Central Coast area of California. Find him on Twitter as @darlingman1970. Don't ask him how old he is.
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