Ernst Hanfstaengl hasn't gotten this much ink in 70 years.
So who is he? You might well ask. The fact that Hanfstaengl hasappeared in two mystery novels this year gives you an idea of how popular the Nazi police procedural subgenre has become lately - and how deep authors must dig in order to come up with something new.
Hanfstaengl was an early Hitler supporter who handled the PR for the Nazis in the early Munich days; he was supplanted by Joseph Goebbels when he balked at the Nazis' savagery. Hanfstaengl worked for the Allies in producing propaganda during the World War II and is one of the era's more interesting stories.
Now he's a major character in a minor novel and a minor character in a major one by a very popular mystery writer.
In "Cavalcade," the latest in Walter Satterthwait's spritely mysteries featuring Pinkerton operatives Jane Turner and Philip Beaumont, Hanfstaengl is their seemingly jovial guide as they investigate a 1923 assassination attempt against an up and coming politician named Adolf Hitler.
Hanfstaengl is more of a reference point than an actual character in Faye Kellerman's "Straight Into Darkness," a more serious attempt to examine the dynamics of pre-war Germany.
Axel Berg is the new head of Munich's homicide unit in the late 1920s, where Hitler's rhetoric is becoming more popular even in the wake of the his failed 1923 putsch. When the daughter of a prominent banker is found dead in a city park, Berg gets the case.
The politics of the case are bad enough, but when a second victim is found, Berg's superiors are afraid unrest will result. They demand the arrest of the usual suspect - her husband, a rich Jew to whom she had been married in order to settle her father's debts in the wake of the great inflation that hit Germany's postwar economy. Of course, the tragic consequences of this make the situation even worse.
Kellerman's research is impressive, and readers will feel they have gained a solid and accurate portrait of the conditions in Munich that gave rise to a monstrous ideology. It's in the small things that the book falters.
Berg is openly anti-Nazi but doesn't seem to have done much of a job of giving his kids any moral basis to feel the same. Maybe it's just that he is too cosmopolitan for such nonsense - he has a Jewish mistress and enjoys "Negro music" and modern art. But his romance is cold and bloodless - and illogical; he loves his wife, an attractive and passionate woman who is not sufficiently anti-Nazi for Berg.
Berg's fellow cops are portrayed as either idiots or political hacks even though his unit is supposed to be elite, and Germany was on the leading edge of criminal investigative techniques in the early 20th century. That ham-handed lack of moral ambiguity is generally a problem with the novel. Everyone has taken political sides, it seems, with very few people motivated by fear, apathy, or the normal concerns of life.
There is plenty of irony that Berg is seeking a serial killer at the same time the city is giving support to one of history's more notorious mass murderers. However, Kellerman seems to think we won't get that on our own, and hammers the obvious point home too often.
For a moment, it seems Kellerman is going to take this point in a truly audacious direction. Instead, the solution to the crime may play fair with the clues, but it is terribly convoluted and unpersuasive.
For fans of this kind of thing, there are lots of choices. Philip Kerr began his career with a superb series of mysteries set in pre-war Germany that got universal acclaim but a very small readership until they recently became cult favorites.
The final twist, which results from Berg's classic fatal flaw, is supposed to give the book a sense of Shakespearean or Greek tragedy, but it is more likely to have readers shaking their heads with disappointment than stirred in their hearts. "Straight into Darkness" is a noble effort, but like those of its protagonist, its own flaws are its ultimate undoing.