A Trace of Smoke

A Trace of Smoke is a period mystery by Rebecca Cantrell. Hannah Vogel, the main character, is a reporter in 1930s Berlin, watching the Nazi party come into power. Hannah’s situation is precarious on a number of fronts.  She has lent her papers and passport to her Jewish friend Sarah, who is traveling to America. This means Hannah can be arrested at any time. Her brother Ernst is gay, and sings in a drag club. This makes him popular, notorious, and very dead.

Hannah sees her brother’s photo hanging on the Wall of the Unnamed Dead. She must keep their relationship a secret, yet she has to know who killed him, and why. Her investigation brings her to the attention of several powerful men in the National Socialist party. Many of Ernst’s lovers are highly placed party members, deeply connected with the Storm Troopers.

As she searches for the truth, Hannah begins finding things that put her at even more risk; an expensive ruby ring, a packet of letters, and most importantly, a six-year-old boy named Anton with a birth certificate that shows Ernst Vogel as his father and Hannah Vogel is his mother. Anton’s parentage is a bigger mystery in the book than who murdered Ernst. Anton is a charming character; vulnerable and brave.

Ernst, remembered by Hannah but also seen by his coworkers, boyfriends and rivals, is also a complicated character. He is brave, having enduring savage beatings from their father when he was a boy because of his sexual identity. He was mercenary and heartless to some, but Hannah discovers people he helped. Hannah was also scarred by their upbringing; the rigid and controlling military father, the alcoholic mother. Hannah’s sister Ursula chose to be the obedient and submissive daughter, while Ernst and Hannah rebelled. Each of them lived behind a mask; Ernst dressed as a woman and sang at the El Dorado, while Hannah wrote hard-boiled crime stories under the pen-name of Peter Weil.

Trying to avoid the eye of the Nazis, solve her brother’s murder, and keep her job, Hannah also wrestles with a new romance with Boris, a wealthy banker, which brings its own set of dangers.

Cantrell did a lot of research for A Trace of Smoke, and it shows. Sometimes it shows a little too much. Every brand of cigarettes is named, and Cantrell even tells us the brand name of Hannah’s stockings. In moderation, this helps create an authentic setting, but overdone, it’s distracting, and in a couple of places Cantrell overdoes it. I did like the El Dorado, though, and the newsroom/bullpen of Hannah’s paper. Hannah is a good journalist and investigator, getting people to tell her their stories and putting the pieces together quickly for the most part.

The ending is filled with action, suspense and a frightening, creepy scene in one of the “private cubicles” at the drag club, where Hannah is impersonating a man. Cantrell chose historical Nazi characters in several places, and she is careful about putting a disclaimer at the end that all of the encounters her historic characters have are fictional.

I found A Trace of Smoke to be an intriguing read. This is the first book of a series. To my intense disappointment, when I read the opening chapters of the second book, which were included as an “Extra,” I discovered that much of what Hannah resolves in this book is immediately undone. This does not make me want to run out and buy A Night of Long Knives.

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