(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie JUN 12, 2005)
Berlin in January 1919 was bitterly cold and damp. The Great War was over and Germany was in the throes of defeat, its citizens impoverished, with ersatz everything for sale and no money to purchase anything. The gallant young men who had marched off to fight for God, Kaiser and Fatherland a mere five years before, were dead, maimed and/or disillusioned, bitter and unemployed. A generation of young women would never marry, their potential spouses buried beneath the winter snow. When the Kaiser abdicated, Fredrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, established the Weimar Government in time to sign the humiliating Treaty of Versailles, which forced Germany to pay billions in gold marks - reparation money it did not have. Inflation was rampant.
Tremendous fear of communism permeated the country. Many thought that Russia's Bolshevik Revolution would spread across the border, so most Germans were content to turn a blind eye to the loss of certain liberties, constitutional rights, and accepted the "strong-arm tactics" which prevailed against anyone who threatened the country's stability. The "Spartacus League," (Spartakusbund), German communists named after the slave who lead a rebellion against the Romans, was founded by Rosa Luxemburg, during WWI to counter the German Social Democrats' support of the war. Luxemburg, a Marxist politician, socialist philosopher, and revolutionary, along with her colleague, Karl Liebknicht, challenged Reichschancellor Ebert's government, as did the far right-wing Free Corps (Freikorps). Miss Luxemburg's failure to organize a coherent political opposition to the Social Democratic leadership proved fatal both to the outcome of the German revolution and to her own life. The state forces reasserted control and crushed the rebellion, brutally murdering Rosa, Karl Liebnecht and many other Party members, sympathizers and workers.
Although Rosa, called the "Devil Jewess" by her enemies, was assassinated on January 15th, 1919, her body was not discovered until five months later. The mystery of her corpse's location during that winter and early spring has never been solved. Jonathan Rabb proposes a credible solution in his penetrating historical mystery, Rosa. The author's extensive research on life in post-WWI Germany enriches this fascinating novel tremendously.
Detective Inspector Nikolai Hoffner, and his young assistant Hans Fichte, find themselves at the center of Berlin's revolutionary violence. Their offices at Kriminalpolizei, (Kripo), Headquarters are right on Alexanderplatz, at the center of the chaotic uprising. The social upheaval and subsequent battles provide but a momentary distraction for the two detectives, however. A vicious serial murderer is on the loose in Berlin, and their attention is intensely focused on the case. Four middle-aged women have turned up dead, all mutilated with identical, intricate markings etched into their backs. Hoffner and Fichte have spent almost six weeks trying to solve the bizarre crime. When the political police (Polpo) intervene, veteran cop Hoffner is disturbed and angry. Why would they be interested in a serial murderer? A fifth body is discovered - the MO is the same. Later that day, at the morgue, honchos from Polpo reveal yet another lifeless body, number six - this one is Rosa Luxemburg. She has the same marks carved into her back as the others. If Miss Luxemburg had been assassinated by the authorities, as rumored, or been killed by an angry mob, also rumored, then why and how did she receive the specific signature of the serial killer? No one, other than the police, knew of the killer's existence, nor about any of the clues at the crime scenes. The revolution had been front page news for weeks. And the Kripo was certainly not looking to enlighten the public about a mass murderer and their failure to catch him.
The Polpo take possession of Luxemburg's body and refuse to release it. As Hoffner conducts a labyrinthine criminal investigation, suspense heightens as startling discoveries are made - in Berlin, Munich and Belgium. In the process a wide cast of compelling secondary characters are introduced, including a Jewish expert in lace making, Oliver Twist-like errand boys who work for the highest bidder, a charismatic pilot, Leo Jogisches, a former lover and colleague of Rosa's, Albert Einstein, Dietrich Eckart (Hitler's mentor), and artist Kathe Kollwitz. The Polpo goons are always a step behind or just ahead of Hoffner. In spite of continual warnings to ignore their machinations, the Detective Inspector persists on his own course. Subplots of love, betrayal, anti-Semitism, secret societies and the political foreshadowing of Nazism make for a riveting read.
Nikolai Hofner is a superb multi-faceted character. He is a consummate professional, a brilliant detective, with a tremendous sense of irony, driven to discover everyone involved in this most complex of cases. He will not be deterred. A man with a past, a flawed yet courageous individual, Nikolai develops feelings of compassion and admiration for Rosa Luxemburg, as he begins to know her through her papers and his investigation. He also demonstrates fairness and sympathy for his partner's weaknesses. However, he is unable to show his wife and sons the love he feels for them.
This is a fantastic novel noir set in an extraordinary place and time in history. The narrative is fast paced and well written, filled with period detail. The mystery at the book's core is a real one and the author's solution is creative, believable and thrilling in its implications. I highly recommend Rosa.
- Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Rosa at Random House
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Chief Inspector Nikolai Hoffner:
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- Official website for Rosa
- BookReporter.com review of The Book of Q
- Fiction Addiction with author's background on Rosa
- The MysteryReader review of Rosa
- BrothersJudd review of Rosa
- BlogCritics review of Rosa
- MostlyFiction.com review of Shadow and Light
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About the Author:
Jonathan Rabb lives in New York City.