Gereon Rath, the hero of Volker Kutscher’s hit detective series set in pre-war Berlin, arrives in the capital from provincial Cologne with a weight of guilt and expectation on his shoulders. He’s assigned to the Vice squad, and before too long is exposed to the lengendarily sleazy underbelly of the city. When a car containing a battered corpse is dragged out of a canal, Rath recognises the victim, but instead of sharing his knowledge he tries to steal a march on the homicide cops led by his loathed rival Bohm.
We’re used to fictional policemen not playing by the rules, but even by the standards of the genre Rath goes to extremes. He’s an ethically dubious lone wolf harking back to the Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet golden age of the hardboiled cop. But what makes Babylon Berlin unique is its ultra-politicised setting, where post First World War resentment and widespread poverty are fuelling radical solutions: on one side Communism; on the other, the spectre of Nazism.
It’s been speculated that this is why the novels have been such a massive hit in Germany, where they’ve been turned into a lavish TV series. Many see parallels in the current political climate across Europe, and I can see how this is true. The setting taps into a kind of collective unease: are we sleepwalking towards catastrophe, as Europe did in the twenties and thirties?
That said, the setting alone doesn’t explain the novel’s success, and what Kutscher manages to do is take the stuff of history and make it breathe, sweat, live, joke, die and not infrequently, think about, watch or even have sex. In fact the moments where I felt most immersed in Babylon Berlin were the little details that best capture the everyday experience of living: Rath’s uncomfortable relationship with his landlady after an ill-advised one night stand; his preference for going out for lunch rather than eating in the office canteen; his amusement at his boss’ addiction to cakes. Through all this the translation strikes just the right balance of keeping the German flavour in street names and places, while using the idioms of today to remind us that for all the distance we perceive to those dark days, in many way we’re not so different from the people who lived through them.
I still remember when I was a callow first year starting at university in Edinburgh, reading Knots and Crosses, the debut of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus. The characters felt rough in places, and compared to the later outings, the plot as I remember it wasn’t that complex. But this hardly mattered: the novel was a window into the dark and seedy side of the city where I lived, and I was hooked. I don’t live in Berlin, and I almost certainly never will, but Babylon Berlin had a similar effect on me. Like Rebus’ debut it has its imperfections, but the vital energy is there in spades. I’ll definitely be following Gereon Rath into his next investigation.