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Paris, 1933. A refugee with no papers, no legal status, and few resources, Willi Kraus lives in fear of deportation back to Nazi Germany. His reputation as a top sleuth however precedes him, and he's soon enlisted to work as a private eye―if under shady circumstances. Despite his apparent good fortune he finds himself a stranger in a very strange land. France is gripped by a fog of disillusionment, anxious about the tides of fascism rising along her borders. Seduced by a sultry but troubled young French girl and befriended by France's most flamboyant financier, Willi finds himself unwittingly drawn into a murder mystery whose trail points towards the highest halls of power. Without a badge, working alone, he gradually gets the impression he's being led into a maze. By whom and for what purpose? To escape this web of intrigue he must learn to navigate not only the grand salons of Paris but her seediest alleys and darkest canals, her smokiest nightclubs―a landscape as disorienting as a hall of mirrors, where sex, politics, money and love are often just tricks of the eye...in Paul Grossman's Brotherhood of Fear.
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PAUL GROSSMAN is the critically acclaimed author of The Sleepwalkers and Children of Wrath. He is a long time teacher of writing and literature at the City University of New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Rain slashed the taxi as it pulled in front of Maxim’s. The doorman waiting there looked like a hit man, Willi thought. Or perhaps it was only shadows. Perhaps that crooked smile as he helped them from the cab didn’t really conceal a merciless cutthroat. In the right light, half this town looked ready to knife you. Under the wildly flapping awning Willi clutched his two young sons by the shoulders, wanting them near. As the white glove ushered them past, Willi got a whiff of the muskiest cologne he was certain he’d ever smelled around Paris, an almost overbearing scent.
Inside the art nouveau temple Bette Gottman inhaled as if entering nirvana. “They haven’t changed a thing.” Her eyes roamed the soft-lit paradise of colored glass. “It’s like coming home.”
Her husband, Max, taking off his trench coat, didn’t miss the irony. “Something like that. I’m just grateful we all made it.”
From what they knew of those still in Germany of course, he was right. Refugees though they were, they were the lucky ones. If only Willi didn’t feel as if he were one of the walking wounded.
It had been six weeks since he’d fled Berlin, slipped across the border with barely his life. But the euphoria of freedom and family reunion had faded to dark uncertainty. The trauma of his violent uprooting refused to fade. Though he tried to conceal it, from his sons especially, he felt something vital, irreplaceable had drained from his being.
The rest of them had been in Paris six months already and had had more time to adjust, as Ava’d pointed out. “You’ll revive,” she’d promised. But Willi was less certain. He felt too much had been cut away—his past, all he’d worked so hard to achieve, all his dreams for the future. Glad though he was to recapture even a hint of the old world tonight, he understood it was only that—a semblance. They were stateless exiles around this table at Maxim’s, with no prospects of returning home.
Across from him Max Gottman, the family patriarch, normally so levelheaded, was growing irritable by his inability to differentiate between Sole Albert and Timbale de soles Joinville. His wife Bette, certain timbale was some sort of mold, didn’t want him sick again and insisted he bypass it despite the waiter’s assurances the mold was not an organism but a baking dish. Willi couldn’t stifle the impression that although they’d slipped past the Nazis with their wealth mostly intact, his in-laws, with only a slightly better grip, were hanging on by their fingertips too. Should they apply for citizenship in France or try their luck in Amsterdam? Should Max rebuild Gottman Lingerie? He was fifty-five. There was opportunity in South Africa, they’d heard, but whom did they know there? For all the money, their bewilderment and isolation went unmitigated.
“I remember the night Leopold II dined here with the Maharaja of Kapurthala.” Bette’s older sister Hedda gazed about through opera glasses. Having married a Frenchman and been in Paris since before the war, she functioned now as a sort of oblivious hostess, as if the German side of the family had arrived on some prolonged holiday. “Or was it the Aga Khan? How much more elegant everything was back then. It’s gotten rather tawdry, I must say.”
Willi stared at the menu, unable to keep the beaux arts lettering from appearing to drip toward his lap. From the moment the Nazis took over in Germany he felt as if he were having a nightmare from which he couldn’t awaken. Now, dispossessed, lost and adrift, it seemed he’d surfaced in one of those bizarre surrealist paintings so popular in Paris these days: everything in a familiar world misplaced or melting.
How wrong he’d been about so much. The republic. The Germans. The triumph of justice. Until his family photos came crashing to the pavement along with the rest of his belongings—courtesy of the brownshirts—he would never have believed a gang of criminals could become the law. And that he, his country’s most famous detective, would have to flee like a thief in the night. In Germany, a mere flash of his badge had been enough to command respect. Now he had nothing. Not even a driver’s license.
Off the death list thankfully, he was anything but free, burdened instead with all he’d lugged along from Berlin: the grief and despair, the fear and outrage. Images that wouldn’t quit haunting him. Three years at the Western Front hadn’t seemed as bad as three months under Hitler. And yet, how he missed the flashing lights along the Ku-damm. The rattle of the S-Bahn. The frantic whirl of Potsdamer Platz. His heart burned to go back home, though his head knew there was no home to go to.
“I’ll have Coeur de filet de Charolais Renaissance,” he heard himself trying to sound alive. “And for the boys, Crêpes veuve joyeuse, s’il vous plaît.”
He’d arrived without papers, passport, money. His French luckily was decent enough, although there was no mistaking his accent. And even luckier, he had a well-to-do ex-father-in-law. The day he’d shown up at their apartment in the swank sixteenth arrondissement, after many hugs and kisses from his sons and his sister-in-law, Ava, and her mother, Bette, he was pulled aside by Max. “If it hadn’t been for you, we’d be paupers now, Willi. So don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. And stay with us as long as you want. There’s plenty of room.”
The first ten days he’d had no choice. He was too deeply in shock to make any decisions. He’d spent half the day in bed. The boys loved having him around. Sometimes Stefan would climb under the blankets with him. But the strain of putting on a smile for everybody was too much. He was up to his neck in despair and not a good enough actor to fake it. As deeply as he loathed having to abandon his sons again, he had to find his own place, he knew, at least for now. They had a better life with his in-laws than anything he could offer.
“I understand, Willi.” Max nodded. “You’re a proud man. My wife and daughter think too proud perhaps. But I admire you.”
The kids had other feelings. “Why can’t we live with you?” Stefan, the younger, whined unashamedly. Erich, the older, had kept his eyes down.
Willi explained as best he could. Before he could take care of them, he had to be able to take care of himself. Establish his legal status. Earn a living. He didn’t mention regain his sense of worth or trust in humankind. They’d lived apart in Berlin since Mom died he said, so they’d have to stick it out a bit longer. They were comfortable at Grandpa’s, weren’t they? Aunt Ava was like a mom … even nicer sometimes, right? They were doing well at school. Making friends.
“It’s all I want,” he reassured them, taking Erich’s chin and making him look up. “For us to be a family again.”
This wish alone got him out of bed each morning because rebuilding his life felt otherwise impossible; he didn’t even want to try. He feared the boys were too young to understand how badly injured he was having been thrown out of his homeland, and that the longer they stayed apart, the harder it would be to bring them together. So he mustered whatever strength he had and put a first foot forward.
Clothes. He’d arrived with only what he was wearing, and a useless Berlin police badge in his pocket. Ava insisted he had to look good in Paris, French not German, so she dragged him to the finest shops, arguing with him always to get more. Then she helped him hunt down a furnished room. He was fine with the first one they saw, near the Porte Saint-Denis.
“A five-flight walk-up?” She’d frowned unhappily. “And so small. Willi, you don’t have to sink this low. You heard what Dad said.”
But low was exactly how Willi felt, and the dark apartment overlooking one of the ancient gates of Paris was as good a place as any to crawl into. Accepting only what he needed from Max to pay the first month’s rent, he moved in with two full suitcases and flopped onto the mattress to try to figure out what the hell to do next.
Stranger in a strange land.
Like all refugees he was required to register with the police, fill out endless forms regarding finances, work history, political activity. In ten to fifteen weeks if all went well, he’d receive a short-term work permit, at which point he could apply for the Right of Domicile. Unlike Germany, France based her citizenship on residency not race. The land of liberté, égalité, and fraternité had room for all who wanted to come—so long as there was a labor shortage. To tide him over until he could legally work, officials suggested he try HEAL, the Hebraic Emergency Assistance League.
Established by his Parisian coreligionists alarmed at the sudden influx of what had been Europe’s most assimilated Jews, the league offered not only financial assistance but much needed job referrals to refugees of Nazi Germany. The thought of having to make use of such a charity made Willi want to jump in the Seine but he couldn’t just sit around waiting for official permits.
“I’ll check and see if there’s anything in your field.” He was interviewed by a redheaded fellow with sympathetic brown eyes, Levy. “Unfortunately you’d never be hired by Paris police unless you were a citizen. Tragic I realize, considering your credentials. But if you’re desperate for something right away…” Levy’s voice lowered. Making it clear this was off-the-record, he’d slipped Willi an address.
It proved a ramshackle building in immigrant Belleville, a Jewish-owned firm that specialized in the manufacture of ladies’ fur-trimmed garments. They took Willi on as a “finisher,” no questions asked, and taught him the job in fifteen minutes: sewing glass eyeballs onto snouts that dangled from fox collars. All day, vacant gazes stared up at him. How similar they were to those he met each morning in the mirror. By the end of the first week it felt as if he’d been born with a needle and thread in his fingers. By the end of the third, it seemed he’d die with them too. He was used to being out in the field, meeting new people, doing different things every day. Working in an airless, gloomy workshop full of depressed refugees felt like a fate worse than death, live entombment.
Then ressurection, or so it seemed: a call from Levy at HEAL. A private investigator with an office near the Place de la République could use an extra hand, he said in a tone indicating what a stroke of mazel this was. Willi should see the man Friday, ten.
Right on time this morning he’d knocked at a door on the fourth floor of a building on boulevard Voltaire. Henri Gripois looked like a walrus on a crash diet, pants, face, mustache, everything drooping. His tiny office smelled of mustard. A framed license was on one wall, until a battered filing cabinet and old wooden desk, a small pile of papers and a framed photo of his wife on it, her features surprisingly fine. He was terribly happy to see Willi, he proclaimed, because he’d taken on more work than he could handle. Of course, he understood Willi was far too qualified for the job. Monsieur was a famous detective. Nevertheless, if he was willing to stoop a bit …
Willi wasn’t even sure he wanted to be a detective anymore. He sure as hell didn’t want to be buried alive in a factory the rest of his life sewing eyeballs onto fox snouts. But the conviction that used to drive him so hard each day, that everyone deserved justice in life, was in tatters.
This assignment, as Gripois explained it, shrugging his sunken shoulders, was not terribly glamorous. It was downright pedestrian after all Monsieur had done in Germany. It simply involved following a young man enrolled at the polytechnic institute, he said, taking out a photograph of Phillipe Junot, a typical-looking student if slightly pudgy faced: round tortoiseshell glasses, stringy hair, pink, heart-shaped lips that gave him a little cupidlike expression. His parents wanted to be certain he was doing what he ought to, not caught up in any distractions plaguing so many French students these days, politics and the like. Hardly cloak-and-dagger, the private eye chuckled ruefully.
And damned depressing, Willi’d thought. He’d risen to the top of his field in Berlin, had a staff of detectives working under him, cracked some of the most heinous cases on record there. Now, here he was being offered a junior detective job following some schoolkid. But according to Gripois, this family was well-placed and, if things went well, had friends in high positions who could be useful in expediting immigration, not only for him but his family. Willi took it. Whatever was necessary to enable them to stay, he would do.
Now, however, far from the mustard-smelling office, surrounded by his family and the opulence of Maxim’s restaurant, he was starting to feel foolish. What kind of parents had their son followed? And what kind of detective agency did this Gripois run?
* * *
“Could that be who I think it is?” Aunt Hedda fixed her glasses like a skilled bird-watcher. “What a sighting!”
Willi looked across the aisle, spotting the pair of glamorous patrons at a nearby table, a handsome man in an apricot necktie chatting with a long-legged woman in a backless cocktail dress. The bright-colored necktie should have looked ridiculous, Willi thought. It would have in Berlin. But this man wore it with real savoir faire.
“Adrienne and André Duval.” Hedda’s glasses plunged triumphantly. “Even better looking than in Paris-Soir.” She seemed compelled to take another peek.
After a pause to camouflage her excitement Bette Gottman asked who they were.
“Something to do with municipal bonds,” Hedda chirped through a mouthful of caviar. “Anyone able to scrape together a dime puts it with Duval.” She pecked at her fingertips. “It’s a positive mania!” Her eyes glittered at the deliciousness of it all.
Max made clear he knew all about the man: “A phenomenon for years. Jewish fellow.”
“Very handsome,” Bette added. “Isn’t he?”
Willi focused in on a gilded mirror to his left offering a full profile of the chap. Sparkling chandelier light seemed to cast a halo around him. From the alligator shoes to the emerald pinkie ring he looked quite the bon vivant. Thick waves of copper hair danced above a large nose and friendly gray eyes. His expansive gestures—smiles and hand motions, tosses of the head—would have been distasteful in Germany, signs of a need to impress. This Duval though seemed quite content in his skin. Willi found himself envying him. How assured he was. And affectionate with his wife. He hardly left her fingers alone long enough to let her eat. It was rather touching, Willi thought. Until in the mirror he caught sight of Ava, her sparkling eyes dark with criticism. What plumage these French manage to display, she seemed to be thinking. Everything to excess.
A shiver of bewilderment tore at his heart. The breach between them only seemed to widen, and he still wasn’t sure why. In the terrible times after Vicki’s death her younger sister was the closest he could get to the warmth of his cherished wife. When she took charge of Erich and Stefan, they all grew so near. Willi wanted to believe that they were destined to fall in love themselves and form a new little family.
After the Nazis seized power, though, he no longer felt like the same man. The faith he’d had in himself, in his perceptions and choices, even his own feelings, had been trampled. He had no idea anymore if what he’d felt those last months in Berlin was real or merely his trying to hold on to a world that was being torn away. No idea if he could provide for himself anymo...
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