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REVIEW: A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

Dear Ms. Cantrell,

Back in October 2007, in one of our Publishing News posts, Jane detailed a little bit of information about your debut novel with a header, “Jayne, are you reading this?” Yep, I read it and was delighted when you followed up this year with an offer for us to review the book. It’s dark, it’s dangerous, it’s bittersweet and while I was reading it, I couldn’t put it down.

Echoes of my footfalls faded into the damp air of the Hall of the Unnamed Dead as I paused to stare at the framed photograph of a man. He was laid out against a riverbank, dark slime wrapped around his sculpted arms and legs. Even through the paleness and rigidity of death, his face was beautiful. A small, dark mole graced the left side of his cleft chin. His dark eyebrows arched across his forehead like bird wings, and his long hair, dark now with water, streamed out behind him. Watery morning light from high windows illuminated the neat grid of black-and-white photographs lining the walls of the Alexanderplatz police station. One hundred frames displayed the faces and postures of Berlin’s most recent unclaimed dead. Every Monday the police changed out the oldest photographs to make room for the latest editions of those who carried no identification, as was too often the case in Berlin since the Great War. My eyes darted to the words under the photograph that had called to me. Fished from the water by a sightseeing boat the morning of Saturday, May 30, 1931-’the day before yesterday. Apparent cause of death: stab wound to the heart. Under distinguishing characteristics they listed a heart-shaped tattoo on his lower back that said "Father." No identification present.

I needed none. I knew the face as well as my own, or my sister Ursula’s, with our square jaws and cleft chins. I wore my dark blond hair cut short into a bob, but he wore his long, like our mother, like any woman of a certain age, although he was neither a woman nor of a certain age. He was my baby brother, Ernst.

From the opening lines of the book, I could tell this wouldn’t be a sunshine and fluffy bunnies kind of book. Placing a novel in 1931 Berlin just about guarantees that it won’t be. The Great War, the post war years and the growing power of the Nazis have shaped Hannah into the woman she is. Once destined to be a wife to a soldier, now dead years ago in the trenches of France, Hannah currently ekes out a living as a journalist.

And it’s her knowledge of crime in Berlin, her connections to the police force, her drive for the truth and her love for her younger brother that propel her into the danger surrounding his murder and help bring her out alive.

The research you’ve done is great. It discretely adds texture to the story but without calling attention to itself. The whole feel of the story is intense, though controlled, as Hannah has to be in order to make her way through this maze that could easily kill her with one wrong step.

I enjoyed the nice little details such as how Hannah’s favorite moment of being a reporter is when she first rolls a fresh piece of paper into the typewriter and, at that point, all things are possible for the story. How her mother taught her to eat the sausage first then the roll so that she could use the bread to sop up the juices. Her memories of embroidering her trousseau and how different her life would have been had her fiance made it home from the Great War.

Given the recent blogosphere comments on foreign language use in books, I think you did well by not sprinkling German speech throughout the story. German words and place names, yes that’s good but foreign speech usually ends up being a snare for many authors.

Readers who have read Ariana Franklin’s novel will notice that this one mirrors a lot of the detail in “City of Shadows.” The menace of Nazis coming to power along with the disbelief of so many that it could or will happen. Sarah and Heir Klein are among the lucky as already the escape doors into other countries were closing. I learned enough details of the poor Boot girls to pity their lives without things getting too squicky. The Hall of Unknown Dead – how sad that a city had to have this for all the unknown dead citizens. Was this a product of the post war environment? Suicides and dead prostitutes due to the economic situation?

I was so hungry reading this. Both Hannah’s preoccupation with food, which is understandable given what she’d been through in the post war years and her delight in being able to eat again when she had enough money or was taken out, made me hungry too. Especially reading about the sausages! Poor thing has to eat slowly when she dines with Boris in order to hide the degree of her hunger. I bet the waitress eats what Trudi left on her plate, too.

Even though Ernst Vogel is never alive during the story, there is so much detail about him that he is as much a character in the novel as anyone else. His comments – that he gave Hannah a nice evening gown so she wouldn’t come see him sing without wearing “some sack or other” – and his dressing up his toy soldiers, among other things, made him come alive for me.

Anton is such a good boy though his background is heartbreaking. Hannah is so flummoxed by the way he initially acts. Being ready to stay in a wardrobe with his stuffed bear Winnetou all day while not saying a word. Not flinching at pain. Not wasting any scrap of food. But then he has his boyish, exasperating moments such as when he tries to foil Hannah’s plan to leave him when she meets with Rohm. Bettina has to tell Hannah that an abused child would view her leaving for the day differently than other children would. I thought the way he looked at the search for clues on the riverbank is perfect. For him, it’s a treasure hunt and not a desperate way to try and discover who murdered the man he’s thought of as his father.

The use of a homosexual character as a stereotype for an evil villain is one I hate but in this case, the facts are indisputable. Rohm is frightening: pure, cold, evil menace crossed with the prewar manners of an officer. I could feel Hannah’s terror during the last scene in the El Dorado nightclub, complete with its sticky floor. The plot nicely incorporates the historical facts of Rohm’s homosexuality and letters he actually wrote detailing his sexual interests.

The secondary characters, even those only “on stage” for a brief time have distinct personalities and details and add to story in their own way. I like how none of the characters are all sweetness and light while none are all bad. Even Rohm stays to help Hannah at one point. They’re well rounded and thought out.

At the risk of it being a SPOILER, the book is not a romance despite what I wanted to happen. But then I wasn’t sure about Boris until the end. He could have ended up good or gone bad because of events surrounding Trudi. By the end though, I knew the book wouldn’t have a HEA romance because of the logistics. So, I’m looking forward to the sequel to see what happens next.

The actual denouement of the murder investigation is tame. I’m bad. I wanted the killer to suffer more but then he’s so pathetic, in his own way. Yet, I can understand why Hannah takes no joy in the killer’s death. The whole thing is terrifying yet sad and depressing. And she knows that nothing will bring back her beloved younger brother nor remove the black cloud gathering over Germany.

Towards the end, Boris says to Hannah, “You are a woman of great strength.” To which Hannah replies, “I only do what must be done.” “There is strength in that.”

I agree with Boris. Hannah, against all odds, finds Ernst’s killer, saves Anton and manages to stay a step ahead of those who would think nothing of killing her to get things the way they want them. She’s supposedly powerless yet triumphs. She keeps most of her promises. She tries to do the right thing in the face of evil. She’s a heroine to respect and one I enjoyed meeting. B

~Jayne

This book can be purchased at Amazon in hardcover. There is no ebook as it is a Tor/Forge publication under the ebook hating masthead of Macmillan.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

7 Comments

  1. Miki
    Jul 03, 2009 @ 20:32:57

    Oh, this sounds really different…

    …it just sucks that it’s not available in e-format.

    Maybe I’ll see if our library is carrying it…

  2. Jayne
    Jul 04, 2009 @ 05:55:53

    I hope your library does have it – or can buy it – because I hope it’s read by a wider audience than I’m afraid a hardback would be.

  3. Susan/DC
    Jul 04, 2009 @ 08:34:56

    I loved Ariana Franklin’s City of Shadows, with its evocation of a world about to go very, very wrong yet with the ray of light provided by the two honorable figures at its core. This book does sound a bit like the Franklin, but to my mind that’s high praise, and I’ll look for this the next time I’m in the book store.

  4. Pearl
    Jul 04, 2009 @ 23:49:13

    I’ve had my eye on this one for a while but I’m wondering what the gore factor is like? Is it disturbing? Graphic?

  5. Jayne
    Jul 05, 2009 @ 04:44:16

    No, I didn’t think the gore level was high or disturbing. Most of the murders/deaths are presented in past tense and while we learn how the person died, we don’t “see” it or get graphic details.

  6. Kristin
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 13:07:42

    FYI, this is now available for the Kindle.

  7. The Literary Horizon: A Trace of Smoke, Evening’s Empire « The Literary Omnivore
    Mar 09, 2010 @ 06:02:29

    [...] Jayne at Dear Author gushes over A Trace of Smoke, over everything from its pacing to its characterization to Cantrell’s depiction of food. She especially points out that Cantrell doesn’t throw in gratuitous German, although I certainly hope she kept the honorifics in German! Uriah at Crime Scraps lavished just as much praise on it, which definitely makes me think I’ve made the right choice putting this particular mystery on my ever-expanding reading list. [...]

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