Book Review: Go beyond the Netflix series with Volker Kutscher’s Babylon Berlin

Berlin, 1929. A car is pulled from the Landwehr Canal with a mutilated corpse at the wheel. Detective Inspector Gereon Rath, newly arrived from Cologne, is on the case, stepping outside his jurisdiction and onto a few toes in the process. His search sends him deep into the seedy underworld of Weimar Berlin, where drug dealers, criminal kingpins, and dirty cops watch his every move. But as a man hiding secrets of his own, how far is Rath willing to go for answers?

Make no mistake Babylon Berlin is no quick read crime caper. Author Volker Kutscher has steeped the first of Gereon Rath’s adventures in German history, packing the 1920’s set novel with swathes of historical research. The scene is so skilfully set that one can feel the tension simmering between the Communists and the police, and get a real sense of the city of Berlin as it sits precariously recovering from one war, while starting out on the road to another.

The plot itself is full of twists and turns befitting the book’s lengthy reading time. One chapter will reveal something new, while the next will send Rath scurrying down an entirely different path. Homicide and Vice investigations collide, suspects wind up dead, threatening and startling messages are sent. Babylon Berlin is heavy on the history – I’m going to have to schedule a reread to make sure I’ve remembered everyone and their leanings correctly! – but it’s integral to this impressive, skillfully plotted thriller, and the book remains rich and engaging right up until the final, fast-paced chapters.

In Gereon Rath, Kutscher has crafted an excellent lead, a man who whilst inherently good, makes some questionable decisions. His ambitions land him in hot water more than once, making for some truly tense scenes, and, as a newcomer to the city, he’s well placed to help the reader explore the political and social landscape of Berlin at this time.

It is, of course, a detective novel in the most traditional way, so don’t go in expecting much in the way of women. The usual femme fatales and desperate housewives are in attendance, but there’s a strong glimmer of hope in the form of stenographer and law student Charlotte Ritter. A relationship with the leading man is inevitable, but she’s smart, ambitious, straight talking and – when the book ends at least – unwilling to forgive his transgressions. Trusted with extra responsibilities by her boss in Homicide, she’s hopefully going to be one to watch in future installments.

Murder, betrayal, torture, seedy nightclubs, crooked cops, cocaine – the underworld of the 1920s is here in all its gritty splendour in Babylon Berlin. No wonder Netflix snapped it up and turned it into a series!

Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher, and translated from the original German by Niall Sellar, is available now through Allen & Unwin.