The Man From Berlin (Gregor Reinhardt)
“. . . [a] notable achievement.”
Luke McCalinn’s first novel The Man from Berlin (A Gregor Reinhardt Novel) is nothing if not ambitious.
Set in the war torn Balkan capital of Sarajevo in 1943, Gregor Reinhardt is that most elusive literary contradiction: The good German wearing a Nazi uniform.
He wears the genre’s classic identification badge, the “Blue Max” for heroism during Germany’s last good war, not the current unpleasantness. Now his conscience regularly tortures him as he rounds up enemies of the Third Reich, interrogating hapless prisoners of war and participating in mass reprisals against innocent Yugoslav civilians.
Poor Reinhardt had just been trying to get along when he resigned as a detective mastermind in Berlin’s Kriminalpolizei to return to the army as a wartime intelligence officer.
Yet the past catches up with him in Sarajevo when a glamorous film producer (and popular local heroine/sexual adventuress) is brutally murdered together with a German officer.
Was this love duo done in by guerrillas?
If so, then why and which ones: Chetniks, Partisans, Yugoslav Royalists, or Ustashe (Croatian) fascists? If the convoluted landscape of Balkan loyalties is daunting, Reinhardt must also navigate the ever-present lethality of his own side: SS fanatics, the somewhat predictable appearance of the anti-Hitler resistance as well as the more familiar corruption of weak men wielding great power.
To these complications must be added the “Vanna-can-I-buy a vowel?” difficulties of Serbo-Croat place-names (e.g. Brcko, Kosovo Polje, Ilidza, Gorazde). Even worse: Creeping generational illiteracy about World War II. Why were the Balkans such a brutal, important, yet often overlooked theater of that war? Why would one Sarajevo native tell Reinhardt that the locals were only “interested in three things. Being Croat. Being Catholic. And being unpleasant to everyone who isn’t one of the first two.”
Because every surface appearance in the Balkans is deceptive, setting his novel there makes Luke McCallin’s maiden effort an even more notable achievement. Despite such potential pitfalls, the author has produced an extraordinarily nuanced and compelling narrative.
His writing is always fluid and occasionally even poetic: “The day had unspooled itself into shreds, the light wavering, people moving like marionettes, as in those old silent films . . . A scratchy reel of notes just out of rhythm and that tinny soundtrack to the mess his life had become . . .”
In the course of his narrative, the author also produces effortless throwaway lines that would not be out of place in any text on human geography (though far better written). “History is layered here, like anywhere else really . . . Each people’s version of the past and the present, just like the carpets you see for sale in the market. But the layers don’t just lie like one atop the other. They clash and rub up against each other as each side’s fortunes wax, then wane and the versions compete for the truth to the exclusion of each other . . .”
Having been on combat patrols in the Bosnian outback, I only wish that my letters home had included observations like this: “. . . Reinhardt found something about the Bosnian forest that registered on a level below that of rational conception. It spread out beneath and around them, a canopy of varied greens and shifting forms, rising and falling with the land hidden beneath it . . .”
But the acid test of any mystery novel is whether the author masters his craft well enough so that the reader is enticed, beckoned forward, surprised, and seduced by artful turns of plot and character.
Former Detective Reinhardt turns out to be a super sleuth, unraveling interlocking layers of deception and self-interest. Germans of lesser character and their brutal Ustashe allies simply want to execute the usual Communists, gypsies, or partisans.
So how well does the author keep his hero one step ahead of the game? I interrupted a long-scheduled summer rereading of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy for a brief return to Bosnia with Captain Reinhardt. Both heroes and their protagonists turned out to be excellent, engaging company: But particularly in a paperback edition seemingly designed for the dog days of summer. And just like Larsson did with his unforgettable heroine Lisbeth Salander, Mr. McCallin clearly has a sequel in mind for Gregor Reinhardt.