Rebecca Cantrell is the award-winning author of the Hannah Vogel series, set in 1930s Berlin. Cantrell’s Hannah is a crime reporter who, in the series opener, A Trace of Smoke, investigates the murder of her own brother, a cross-dressing cabaret star.
An investigation of the seamy underside of Weimar Berlin, this debut was hailed as “haunting…evocative, compassionate and compelling,” by a Kirkus Reviews critic, and “unforgettable” by a Publishers Weekly reviewer. The second novel in the series, A Night of Long Knives, out in May 2010, continues Hannah’s adventures.
Becky was good enough to put down some of her thoughts about 1930s Berlin for this Scene of the Crime interview.
What is your connection to Berlin? How did you come to live there or become interested in it? Do you make frequent trips there?
I lived in Berlin for two years in high school and a year in college, right at the age when the world was making an impression on me. I’d come from a tiny Alaskan town (Talkeetna, population 250) to West Berlin. The Wall was up. I heard that the Soviets had a plan to take the city in under 20 minutes. The city was stuffed with artists (tax breaks), draft dodgers (no mandatory military service requirement if you lived in Berlin), American GIs, and old timers. When I danced at the Kuh Dorf disco on Fridays, there were more people on the dance floor than in all of Talkeetna. It was an amazing smack in the consciousness.
I don’t live in Berlin anymore, and I don’t visit as often as I’d like, so I do tons and tons of research.
What things about Berlin make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Berlin in the 1930s was in an incredible stage of transformation. Germany had lost many men to the Great War, even more to the Spanish Flu, and a fair share to starvation when the currency devalued in 1923. But in spite of all that, Berlin was an incredibly vibrant city. It was a world center of science, art, cinema, music, and literature. Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Josef von Sternberg, and Joseph Roth all lived together in Berlin in the early 1930s, coexisting with Communists intent on revolution on the right and National Socialists (Nazis) intent on revolution on the left. Then, tragically, in 1933 it ended. The Nazis came to power and all of the light and the music and the artists were either killed or they fled. In a matter of months, a major European city fell into a deeper darkness than had been seen for centuries.
Berlin is such a vibrant city that it probably has to be a character in any story set there, but I did not deliberately set out to make it so. I show what happens there through the eyes of a desperately poor crime reporter named Hannah Vogel who lives there. It’s her story and it’s her city too.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Berlin has an enormous historical burden, and both Hannah and I are very conscious of that. When you see a group of men with swastika armbands demonstrating in front of a Jewish-owned department store, it has a certain resonance. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to be as accurate as I can be with everything I write. Since the Hannah Vogel series is set during a particular time and place, everything must be scrupulously researched, including the setting.
How does Hannah interact with her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonist?
Hannah moved to Berlin as a teenager, but it’s the only place she’s ever called home. She loves the city, but she’s also very aware of its dark side. She’s reported on the crimes, attended the trials, talked to the victims. Hannah knows the score. The series is particularly hard for her in terms of setting because she watches as her city is taken over by the Nazis. She sees how the propaganda affects the citizen, sees her Jewish friends disenfranchised and eventually deported, until the world she knew is forced even more deeply underground or destroyed.
Has there been any local reaction to your works? What do the German and Berlin reviewers think, for example. Are your books in translation in that country, and if so, what reaction have they gotten from reviewers?
So far, A Trace of Smoke and A Night of Long Knives have not been translated into German. I do have German friends who have bought the book from the English section of German Amazon and kindly send me pictures of my book in Berlin, but it’s not quite the same, is it? I’ll keep you posted.
Of the novels you have written set in Berlin, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
This is the hardest question to answer. I love Berlin in all my books. Here’s a passage from A Trace of Smoke that describes the cabaret where her brother sings:
“I watched from the doorway before stepping onto the stoop. Automobiles cruised by with the men’s faces hidden under fedora brims behind rolled up windows. The baker’s son leaned against the side of the store, smoke curling past his narrow shoulders. I stood as tall as I could and stepped into the street. I hated being out alone at night. I’d read too many reports of rapes and murders, sat through too many trials, to believe I had any safety.
“I hurried the last block from Nollendorfplatz station to El Dorado. Ernst had been proud to work in the Schöneberg borough, the area where the newly famous Marlene Dietrich was born. A safer area than my apartment, but not around the night clubs.
“When I arrived at the corner of Motz Strasse, I paused. A giant mural covered the outside wall of the club. It started with a woman in a long formal dress dancing with a man in a tuxedo and monocle. Next to them were two men in tuxedos dancing together, one with a feminine birthmark and red lips, but unmistakably male shoulders and hair. A few centimeters away, two women danced cheek-to-cheek, their backs to a roguish man in a tuxedo dancing with another man and a laughing woman.
“The mural told you that entering El Dorado was stepping through the looking glass.
“And also one describing the Wannsee, back when it was just a lake for boating, before the terrible decisions were made there:
“On the golden sand bathers arranged and rearranged themselves on towels, their bathing costumes and caps black and white in the sun. Cheerful orange and white-striped umbrellas shaded mothers with fat, pale infants. A balloon vendor strolled down the beach with the colorful orbs bobbing above his head, on the lookout for indulgent parents. When an adventurous youngster dashed into the water clutching a shovel and pail in his chubby fists, his diaper drooping, his mother dashed after him, her unfashionably long hair cascading down her back.
“I turned to watch the tree-covered islands sliding by. A flock of starlings wheeled and dipped, punctuation marks dancing in the sky.”
Thanks, Becky, for a great interview and for taking the time to stop by Scene of the Crime!