Nuremberg, 1945. The trials of World War II German leaders are about to begin and the city, what's left of it, is on edge. There is "a complete absence of social controls -- a lack of records to track known criminals. . . . It's a cop's nightmare."
Which is why those in charge of security for the city and the trials grow uneasy when there is a series of particularly bloody murders of a Russian, then an American, a Frenchman, a Pole. Who is doing this? Someone with a personal connection to the victims? Feuding black market entrepreneurs? Terrorist Werewolf brigades, former Hitler Youth, guerrillas who roam the country killing those they perceive as traitors to Germany.
Enter Nate Morgan, born Nathan Morgenstern. Morgan has been in Switzerland during the war working for US military intelligence. Now William Donovan and his OSS have been abruptly dismissed by President Truman. But while spying against the Germans may no longer be necessary, the more prescient in the intelligence community know that "the Soviets make better friends during times of war than times of peace." And so Morgan is assigned to interview Germans imprisoned in the Palace of Justice and to identify potential spies and informants for the US.
Before the war Morgan was a highly-regarded police detective in New York City with degrees from Harvard and Harvard Law School. The American head of security for the trials is Colonel Geoffrey Adams, a man with a post-war agenda. He needs a man to solve the crimes, or, alternatively, to take the blame when the murderer is not caught. Donovan recommends Morgan, who goes to work with the understanding that Adams will support him. (He does not.)
Morgan puts together a team. He recruits one of the German prisoners he has interviewed, the cynical Werner Beck. Beck was a Nuremberg police inspector who is still sore from having failed to solve the notorious Slasher murders, which occurred just before the war. He, too, is well educated having studied philosophy at Heidelberg and criminology in London. In the Allied bombing of the city in the past January and February his wife and daughter were killed. He had an English nurse and his English has a South Counties Colonel Blimp accent.
This exposition is beautifully done. The setting of the bombed out city, "a stage set for Gotterdammerung," evokes the desperation and despair of its inhabitants. Jones introduces his major characters skillfully. He has created one of the more inspired cop duos I've seen. Morgan and Beck are former enemies, now colleagues, soon, perhaps, to be friends. They must find this multiple murderer -- the term serial killer has not yet been coined -- and they must keep these ghastly crimes under cover lest they detract attention from the Nuremberg Trials.
The detectives do have some clues to work with: the victim's throat is slashed by someone standing directly in front of him, face to face. A scalpel is used. A page from a novel on which words are underlined is clutched in the murdered man's hand. And the locations where the bodies are found may be significant. Most important, the murders occur on schedule, every third day.
Jones has created a cast of well-defined characters: - Kate Wallace, an American reporter, who discovers that the murders are being kept from the press. She is determined to cozy up to Morgan to get the details.
- Rollo, a German snitch who knows everything there is to know about the Nuremberg underworld and the black market, a dangerous spot to be in.
- The Baroness Elizabeth von Prandtauer, the widow of one of the men who tried in July 1944 to assassinate Hitler, a "Good German" in the eyes of the Allies. She still lives in the Prandtauer family house on the outskirts of the city where the bombing was not so intense. Kate is assigned to board there during the trials.- Falk, the baroness' butler, very tall and emaciated, and a devoted retainer who has been with the family since the baroness was a child.
- Reinhard Manhof, the current head of Nuremberg Kripo, Kriminalpolizei, which is the detective force within German police departments. Manhof has maneuvered himself into the job once held by Beck by engineering the false accusations against Beck for which he has been jailed.
And so Morgan and Beck begin their investigation, with potentially useful clues and false leads, strings of contacts to follow, and dead ends, red herrings, and a dearth of records that makes investigating suspects' backgrounds either extremely time-consuming or impossible, all with the backdrop of the city ruins behind them. (This book cries out to be filmed.)
J Sydney Jones has written a series of mysteries that takes place in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. (See my review of the first book in the series, The Empty Mirror, here.) They are among my favorites (and not just because of the setting with its Jugenstil artists like Klimt, music venues with the likes of Mahler conducting, and cafes that smell of coffee and buzz with discussions of art and politics.) Although I don't see any announcements, I'm hoping Ruin Value is the first of a similar series set in post-war Germany. Surely a sterling pair like Morgan and Beck won't be confined to this one book.
Ruin value is the theory that architects should design buildings that will make attractive ruins, such as those of the Greeks and Romans. It was the idea of Albert Speer and endorsed by Hitler. The Disphotic web site has an enlightening essay on the subject.
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.