Bourgeois class domination is undoubtedly an historical necessity, but, so too, the rising of the working class against it. Capital is an historical necessity, but, so too, its grave digger, the socialist proletariat.
One of the central events of the bloody 20th Century seems largely forgotten now, the Spartakist Revolution of 1919 in Germany, which might have inflicted a communist state, but in the end only succeeded in creating a climate of ferocious anti-communism on the German Right, that eventually led to disastrous conservative complacency at the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, cofounders of the Spartacus League, helped lead the rising in Berlin but when it was put down by the military and the Freikorps they were summarily executed on January 15th, 1919. Liebknecht's corpse was found right away but Luxemburg's did not turn up for four months, in the Landwehr canal.
Jonathan Rabb sets his compelling thriller against this historical backdrop--making especially effective use of the atmosphere of post-war exhaustion, political ferment, and even existential dread--as the gifted but selfish Detective Inspector Nikolai Hoffner of the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo) investigates a serial killer whose victims seem to include Luxemburg, though the Polpo, or political police, have hidden the discovery of her body from the public. In addition to grappling with the twisted thought processes of the murderer, Hoffner has to deal with his own half-Jewish/half-Russian background; his estrangement from his wife and sons, caused by his philandering; an inexperienced and rather naive partner whose girlfriend he desires; superiors and rivals who don't want his investigation to lead into discomfiting corners; well-intentioned meddling from a Spartakist ally of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Leo Jogisches, another historical character; nascent anti-Semitic conspiracies; and various other complications.
It all makes for a rich stew, though it can be hard to keep characters and their motivations straight. Mr. Rabb has carefully constructed an elaborate plot, but perhaps too carefully, as coincidence piles on coincidence and the bad guys seem almost omniscient and omnipotent right up to the moment that they seem utterly ignorant of what Hoffner has gotten up to. The final drawback of the book is political and will not bother all, but Hoffner's adulterous ways lead him to betray too many of those close to him for us to find him an easy hero, or even anti-hero, to like and the intellectual/emotional attachment he develops for Rosa Luxemburg will likely leave cold anyone who's dubious about her life and legacy. But, these qualifications aside, Mr. Rabb introduces us to interesting historical speculation and a detective whose tragic flaws make him fascinating if not always likable while he whisks us through a dark disturbing thriller. If the book might benefit from being a bit less over-stuffed, it's hard to be too critical of an author who's erred on the side of trying too hard. We definitely recommend Rosa but expect that future efforts from Mr. Rabb will be even better as he learns that sometimes a bit less can equal much more.
-BOOK SITE: Rosa by Jonathan Rabb (Crown Books)
-BOOK SITE: Rosa by Jonathan Rabb (Random House)
-BOOK SITE: Rosa (Written Voices)
-VIDEO: Meet the Author: Jonathan Rabb
-REVIEW: of The Overseer by Jonathan Rabb (Charles Salzberg, NY Times Book Review)
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