Author of the Month

Name: Simon Scarrow

First Novel: Under the Eagle

Most Recent Book: Blackout

'...a definite must-read from a master storyteller. '

Synopsis:
Berlin, December 1939. As Germany goes to war, the Nazis tighten their terrifying grip. Paranoia in the capital is intensified by a rigidly enforced blackout that plunges the city into oppressive darkness every night, as the bleak winter sun sets.

When a young woman is found brutally murdered, Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke is under immense pressure to solve the case, swiftly. Treated with suspicion by his superiors for his failure to join the Nazi Party, Schenke walks a perilous line - for disloyalty is a death sentence.

The discovery of a second victim confirms Schenke's worst fears. He must uncover the truth before evil strikes again. As the investigation takes him closer to the sinister heart of the regime, Schenke realises there is danger everywhere - and the warring factions of the Reich can be as deadly as a killer stalking the streets.

Review:
I have been going through a WWII phase. If a story takes place during the second world war, then it calls out to me. Such is the reason why I was intrigued when I received ‘Blackout’ in the post. What really attracted me to Scarrow’s new series is that it takes place in Berlin, the main protagonist a German Inspector. What Scarrow shows is that although the Third Reich were the instigators of war, not every German agreed with their principals, but what one forgets is that the everyday man or woman in Germany dealt with the same restrictions as the British. This is where Scarrow starts his story with Berlin in total blackout, handing the streets over to criminals, prostitutes and murderers who use the pitch dark to their advantage.

As with his Eagle series, Scarrow is marvellous at giving his reader a sense of place. Here he delves into how people felt and the propaganda that sparked the paranoia on every person, watching what they said, what they did in case they were reported to ‘the party’. Any sense of betrayal was dealt with swiftly and with strong consequences. Germans had seen what ‘the party’ could do with the Jews, so imagine what they could do to those they felt were a traitor to the cause? It was interesting to see the war from a German perspective.

Schenke is a bit of a dark horse, but he is intriguing in a moody way. He isn’t a member of ‘the party’, and that has been noted by people in high positions. His relationship with Karin is interesting as they are poles apart. She is privileged and is outspoken about how difficult it is to shop for perfume whilst waiting for Germany’s former allies to step into line after the brisk invasion of Poland. Again, like the Great War, people hoped war would all be over by Christmas. Thankfully, Karin is also not a fan of the new regime, although that may be back to simply being inconvenienced. However, Scarrow just manages to get away with Karin not being quite so annoying and spoilt to make your teeth grate!

I had a fair idea who was the perpetrator of the killings, but this did not distract my enjoyment of ‘Blackout’. In fact, I was rather swept away being transported back to 1939 Berlin and how the last war affected Schenke and that some lessons hadn’t been learnt by many Germans who felt it perfectly reasonable to pitch their country back into war after only twenty-one years. Scarrow’s ‘Blackout’ felt like a History lesson wrapped up in a crime novel, but he perfectly wraps the history to propel his story, rather than inhibit it. I look forward to Schenke’s next case, especially as each case will bring him and his country deeper and deeper into war. ‘Blackout’ is a definite must-read from a master storyteller.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating



Questionnaire

1) You’ve been writing your hugely successful Eagles of the Empire series for 20 years – what made you want to start a new series afresh?
One of the first (unpublished) novels I wrote was a crime novel set in the Bahamas. I enjoyed writing within that genre and there are frequently twists and turns in the Roman novels, so a crime series was always in the back of my mind. And much as I love writing the Roman series and have every intention on keeping it going, it is always a good idea to try something new.
2) What drew you to the world of Nazi Germany as a setting?
For the same reason it provokes the curiosity of other historians, namely how was it possible to transform a modern western civilization with so many laudable cultural, scientific and humanitarian figures into a dystopia ruled by gangsters so swiftly and effectively. Moreover, what must it have been like to be someone who straddled the pre-Nazi and Nazi eras? We adapt to new circumstances, but the changes wrought by the Nazis were so far-reaching that adapting to them must have been a huge challenge for many people who did not buy into the regime.
3) How do you go about devising your protagonist for a series like this?
So much depends on the reader’s rapport with the principal character. When I was considering the protagonist for the series I wanted a character who was educated enough to see through the fraudulent ideas of the Nazi regime and yet felt helpless about his situation. As many must have done. In such circumstances people just do the best they can to do the right thing, within the bounds of possibility. It is entirely possible that Schenke may come to think that it is no longer enough.
4) What sort of research did you do for the book?
As I do for the Roman era, I did plenty of reading, and talked to re-enactors and those who have expertise in more arcane matters such as hand weapons and so on. I also spent two weeks of research on location. Berlin is a fascinating and laid-back city and it is very jarring when you come face to face with evidence of the past, such as the bullet marks scarring those buildings that survived the fall of Berlin, or the sombre concrete blocks of the Holocaust memorial.

The most affecting moment was visiting the museum where the headquarters of the SS and Gestapo once stood. The displays are chilling. One thing that impresses the visitor most of all is that in Germany they do not see History as an opportunity to cloak themselves in nostalgia and nationalist mythology, as we tend to in the UK. History is regarded as something to learn from and pay heed to the warnings it offers.
5) How do you approach the fleshing out of real-life characters from history such as Canaris and Heydrich? And is it different to writing about historical figures from ancient Rome that died nearly 2,000 years ago?
I approach it in the same way that I did for real-life Roman characters – read up on them as much as possible, set them in their historical context and then try to tease out what their motivations might have been beyond what is available on record. As to how different it is, well, if they are dead than they can hardly take me to task for misrepresentation... That said a writer has to work within the constraints of the historical record. It would break the unwritten contract between a historical novelist and readers if I was to have Heydrich die of old age, or if I made Canaris out to be communist.
6) What plans do you have for Schenke?
It’s exciting! It is always great to get stuck into a new setting with new characters and issues to address. Over time, I will follow Schenke’s investigations through the course of the war and examine how he changes as he comes to understand the full horror of the regime he is trying to serve.
7) Have you read other Berlin-based crime fiction by the likes of Philip Kerr and Volker Kutscher?
No. For the same reason I try not to read any other Roman fiction. I only continue to read Lindsey Davis because I was a fan of her writing before I began writing my series and the setting and style are very different. I am concerned that I might unwittingly be influenced by my fellow Roman writers. The same applies for this series. Kerr and Kutscher are off limits, regrettably.