In the last days of the First World War, socialist revolution swept across Germany, sending Kaiser Wilhelm into exile and transforming Berlin into a battleground. But for Detective Inspector Nikolai Hoffner and his young assistant, Hans Fichte, the revolution is a mere inconvenience. Four women from the slums of Berlin have turned up dead, all with identical markings etched into their backs, and Hoffner and Fichte have spent the better part of six weeks trying to crack the bizarre case.
Things take a troubling turn when the political police begin to show an interest in Hoffner's investigation. Hoffner has no idea why the Polpo would want to get their hands dirty with a serial murderer, until he is shown the lifeless body of Rosa Luxemburg, the same eerie markings on her back. Rumors abound that Rosa, one of the leaders of the suppressed socialist uprising, was assassinated by an angry mob, but the pattern carved into her back tells a different story.
In his remarkable thriller, Jonathan Rabb paints a vivid, unforgettable picture of a city and a people poised between the chaos of the First World War and the darkness to come, a time when political thugs, petty thieves, and charismatic leaders rushed to fill the void left behind. Into this gap steps Hoffner, who, while battling his own personal demons, is still determined to find out who is preying on the women of Berlin, even as he gets drawn deeper into the mystery surrounding Rosa's death. Hoffner's search for the killer leads him on a dark and twisted journey through the battle-scarred streets of the city, where he soon discovers that nothing is as it appears. And while he finds allies in unexpected places, he is met at every turn by men who will stop at nothing to keep him from finding out the truth about Rosa.
A genuine mystery at the time, Rosa's fate has continued to prompt speculation to this day. Rabb's taut political thriller imagines one strikingly real possibility. With his first two novels, The Overseer and The Book of Q, Rabb proved that he had a talent not only for writing suspenseful narratives but for illuminating the darkest corners of history as well. With Rosa, his finest work, he brings to life a world capital on the brink of chaos, a tragic revolutionary who both inspired and enraged, and a compellingly complex, world-weary, deeply flawed but brilliant inspector named Nikolai Hoffner.
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Jonathan Rabb is the author of the novels Rosa, The Overseer, and The Book of Q.
One of AudioFile magazine's Golden Voices, Simon Prebble has received over twenty Earphones Awards and five Listen-Up Awards, and he has been a finalist fourteen times for an Audie Award. In 2006, Publishers Weekly named him Narrator of the Year, and he was named Booklist's 2010 Voice of Choice.
Berlin in December, to those who know her, is like no other place. The first snows take on a permanence, and the wide avenues from Charlottenburg to the Rondell breathe with a crispness of Prussian winter. It is a time when little boys drag their mothers away from the well-dressed windows at KaDeWe or Wertheim's or the elegant teas at the Hotel Adlon and out to the Tiergarten and the wondrous row of marble emperors along the Siegesallee. Just as dusk settles, as the last flurries of the day swirl through the leafless trees, you can steal a glimpse of any number of little eyes peering up, hoping, just this once, to catch a stony wink from an Albrecht the Bear, or a Friedrich of Nuremberg with his large ears and dour expression. Just a wink through the snow to tell him that Christmas will be kind to him this year. "There, Mama, did you see! Do you see how he winked at me!" And the pride that next morning, bundled up beyond measure, racing out from his fine house on Belziger or Wartburg Strasse to tell his friends of his triumph. "Yes, me, too! Me, too!" Berlin in December.
This, however, was January, when the snow had turned to endless drizzle, so raw that it seemed to penetrate even the heaviest of layers. And whatever civility they might still be clinging to elsewhere, here on the east side of town, all the way up to the flophouses in Prenzlauer Berg, people had little time or patience for such gestures. Christmas had brought nothing, except perhaps the truth about how the war had been lost long before the summer, how the generals had been flimflamming them all the way up to the November capitulation. Oh, and of course, the revolution. Christmas had brought that, a thoroughly German revolution, with documents in triplicate, cries from the balconies, demonstrations and parades, tea still at four o'clock, dinner at seven, and perhaps a little dancing afterward up at the White Mouse or Maxim's. Shots had been fired, naturally, a few hundred were dead, but the socialists—not the real socialists, mind you—were straightening everything up.
Still, it was the weather that had most people on edge. The rain just wasn't giving in, and it was why Nikolai Hoffner, rather than waiting out on the tundral expanse of the Rosenthaler Platz, had snuck off to Rucker's bar for something warm to drink. Years of experience had told him that nothing of any significance was going to happen today: later on, he would come to regret that arrogance. So, with a knowing smile, he had left the ever-eager Hans Fichte up on the square; at the first sign of trouble, Fichte knew where to find him.
Hoffner sat with a brandy ("I'd walk a mile for Mampe's brandy, it makes you feel so hale and dandy!"), the early edition of the BZ am Mittag in front of him. He had not sat like this in weeks, a quiet read to clear the mind. And not because of the nonsense that had been going on out at the stables, or up at the Reichstag: all the pretty uniformed men had managed to disrupt traffic too many times, now, to recount. No, Hoffner had been up to his ears in real violence, genuine terror, hardly the kind plotted in Red pamphlets or designed in back rooms by overfed burghers calling themselves socialists. They played at revolution; he knew another kind. But for today—orders from on high—he was told to leave that alone and join the rest of his breed in the streets to make sure "nothing untoward" would come to pass.
Hoffner finished off the last of his drink and nodded to the barman to bring him another. As he was one of only three people in the place—a man at a corner table, his head tilted back against the wall, his mouth gaped open in sleep; a woman with a beer and bread, her business at one of the nearby hotels temporarily interrupted—the service was unusually prompt. The barman approached with the bottle.
"This, I'm sad to say, will have to be the last."
Hoffner looked up from his paper. "I'm sad to hear." He had a steady, reassuring voice.
"It's this damned rationing," said the man. "This and another bottle's all I've got for the day. My apologies."
Hoffner half smiled. "What do you care if the money's coming from me or from someone else?"
"Simple economics, mein Herr. No brandy, fewer people in here to buy my sausages before they rot." The man opened the bottle. "It's called the distribution of capital, or something like that. You understand."
Hoffner's smile grew. "Completely."
"And"—the man nodded as he poured—"the money's not coming from you. It never does. So why don't you be nice to me today and let someone else pay for the brandy?"
Hoffner reached into his coat pocket and produced a ten-pfennig coin. He placed it on the table.
The man smiled again as he shook his head. "No, no. I like that you don't pay. You like that you don't pay. We may be governed by socialists now, but it's better that you hold on to your money."
The man popped the cork back into the bottle and headed for the bar. "Time to wake up, Herr Professor Doktor," he said as he moved past the man in the corner. The man at once opened his eyes, looked around in a daze, and then, in one fluid movement, pawed out his beard, picked up his umbrella, and stood. Upright, he seemed far more impressive, though from the look of his clothes, one had to wonder how much sleep he had gotten in the last few days. He peered over at Hoffner. "Is it safe out there, mein Herr?"
Hoffner continued to read his paper. "Safe as can be, Herr Professor Doktor."
"Excellent." The man turned to the barman. "My thanks, Herr Ober." And, placing his hat on his head, he started for the door, stopping momentarily to bow to the lady. "Madame." He then glanced quickly through the windows, and was gone.
Hoffner scanned through several stories, all of which were doing their best to assuage a devoted readership. The Reds were dead: good old Liebknecht had gotten his in the park, little Rosa in the clutches of a murderous mob, though her body was still missing; Chancellor Ebert could be trusted with the government; business was on the rise, so forth and so on. And yet, even within the lines meant to pacify, the BZ had that remarkable capacity to stir up a kind of subdued panic:
Reichs Chancellor Ebert, with the full cooperation of a diligent military, has declared the streets once again safe for the men and women of Berlin. Hurrah! With the National Assembly election only days away, we must thank this provisional government for the speed with which it has put down the Bolshevik-inspired insurgency, and hope that it is equally tireless in its efforts to hunt down the deluded lone sharpshooters who still infest our city. Those living in the area between Linienstrasse and the Hackescher-Markt are advised to remain indoors for the next twenty-four hours.
The woman at the table laughed lazily to herself. Still pretty at twenty-two, twenty-three, she jawed through her bread. She was wearing the unspoken uniform of those girls who sell roses and matches at the restaurants along Friedrichstrasse--the silk-thin dress, ruffles along the low collar and cuffs, the dark cloche hat with its front trim tucked up, just so--except hers was well past its prime, the sure indication that she, too, had progressed. All pretense long gone, she spoke her mind. "It's so easy to spot one of you," she said, not looking up. "Long brown coat, brown shoes, brown hat, brown, brown, brown."
Hoffner flipped to the next page. "One might say the same of you, Fraulein."
She bit into a wedge of bread. "But you won't. As a gentleman."
"No, of course not. As a gentleman."
The woman started to laugh again as she picked at the remaining slab of bread, her fingers like little bird beaks pecking at the crust. "Another glass of brandy for my friend, Herr Ober," she said, her eyes fixed on the bread. "We must make sure to keep our men of the Kripo warm and happy. Who will protect us from the Russian hordes?" Another laugh.
Hoffner folded his paper and placed it on the table. "Alas, Fraulein, but the Russians are out of the Kriminalpolizei's jurisdiction. We deal only with the Berlin hordes."
The man at the bar smiled quietly and retrieved the bottle, but Hoffner shook his head and pushed back his chair, a bit farther than he had anticipated needing. His wife was pleased that he was having no trouble keeping the weight on, a testament to her culinary skills amid all the shortages. Not that he was fat, but Hoffner had a certain image of himself that he was, as yet, unwilling to part with: good height, deep eyes, dark hair (he had gotten the latter two from his Russian mother, likewise the first name), reasonably fit, and with a thin scar just beneath the chin, a worthy reminder of championship days as a Gymnasium fencer. At forty-five, however, several centimeters had vanished to the slight roll in his shoulders; the depth of his eyes had relocated south to a pair of ever-widening bags; and while the hair was still full, dark most certainly would have been a stretch. As to the rest, more like distant friends than close companions.
"Thank you, Fraulein," said Hoffner. "But I'm guessing you've got better things to do with your hard-earned money."
The front door opened and a pocket of chilled air quickly made the rounds. There, slick from the rain and out of breath, stood Hans Fichte, his eyes on Hoffner.
"Shut that door," barked the barman as he placed the bottle back on its shelf.
Fichte did as he was told, and moved quickly to Hoffner's table. "You're needed back in the square, Herr Kriminal-Kommi...
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