California Literary Review

Shadow and Light by Jonathan Rabb

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June 17th, 2009 at 9:03 am

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Shadow and Light by Jonathan Rabb
Shadow and Light: A Novel
by Jonathan Rabb
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★½

Zero-Sum Game

A man is found dead in a bathtub, brandy is poured and the whodunit game grows darker with every turn. Throw in a gritty 1927 Berlin, a major film studio and a chief inspector who never misses a beat and the pages practically turn themselves. Such is the frame of Jonathan Rabb’s Shadow and Light, which reaches into much deeper pockets than your average detective thriller.

This is a special kind of film noir, where a post-WWI Berlin is not itself, not entirely the dark, angular metropolis half-hidden in ambivalence and disposition, but strange “under a too-bright sun without the sense to generate a trace of heat.” The city is omniscient and Rabb gets it to speak through seedy backstreets, a warped past and what the reader knows and can imagine of its pre- and post-Nazi landscape.

He gave us an earlier Berlin and his seasoned protagonist, Nikolai Hoffner, in his 2005 novel, Rosa, the first of the trilogy, which means there is likely another book of this sort on its way.

The narrative is not driven purely by action, although there is plenty—each scene sets in motion the next and the speed of the dominos tipping over sometimes leaves you playing catch-up with a plot that’s trying to pull too many strings. Hoffner’s point of view and powers of observation are beacons in a sea of black clouds. This allows Rabb’s prose, often beautifully executed, to be multi-layered and, through his central character, discerning and insightful.

How Rabb designs the architecture of the characters surrounding the chief inspector—namely in his newly found lover, Leni, an American talent agent for Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer; his ailing mother; and his sons, Georg and Sascha—is equally skillful.

Consider the nuance in Hoffner’s processing:

The strength was less in her gaze or the way she stood—although both conveyed an unrelenting certainty—as in the easy grasp of her fingers. They were long and thin and perfectly delicate, and it was their indifference that gave them their power . . . . Her face had that same quality, fine and pale and seemingly inviting, but perhaps just too inviting to take the risk.

Later he falls for her, but Hoffner is usually one step ahead of any given person at hand. Even if later he is vulnerable to those who crumble around him, he knows better to trust too soon and completely. Rabb gives him a depth and range that shines brightest through the other voice in his head, the one that makes him so likeable.

Take this moment, for example, when he visits his dying mother in an old-age home for Russian Jews:

Her eyes were already shut. Even then, she was no closer to peace than when he had first arrived, and it was that, and that alone, that always cut him. Not for the sadness or loneliness or desperation that breathed in every corner of the place, but for his own failure. Hoffner carried it like an added weight to his own isolation, out into the street, and imagined that this was what shame must have felt like.

Decay is a major theme in this novel, and it takes root with Hoffner’s toothache and is later manifested in various shapes and sizes, notably in the “constant light” or “Weisserhimmel” that has become too much for everyone as well as Berlin’s sex and drug trade, which are where the clues lead, a treacherous, brutal slope to navigate. Tyssen, the Ufa film executive who was killed in his office bathtub, knew about a secret of how to record sound on film. But where is the invention? And why has the starlet, Ingrid Volker, gone missing?

Amid these perplexities, Hoffner delves into a world where the rules he’s been playing by quickly come unglued. He solicits the film director Fritz Lang and crime boss Alby Pimm and discovers much larger intersections and forces at work. His 16 year-old son, Georg, quit school to work at the film studio, while his oldest son, Sascha, turns up at a German Workers Party rally led by Joseph Goebbels.

Georg seeks his father’s approval, and as the weight of the backstory bubbles-up, you sense a tension on the verge of popping:

Hoffner could feel it slipping away. “Is there something I’m missing, Georgi?”

The boy said nothing.

“What?” said Hoffner.

“You’re going to do nothing aren’t you?”

Hoffner tried not to provoke him. “Yes.”

“So there was no point in coming out here at all, was there?”

“I came, Georgi, because you called me. Because you were concerned.”

A girl emerged from the building, and Georg watched as she walked down the path. He said quietly, “Are you listening to yourself, Papi?”

Martha had used silences like this. It was uncanny that a boy of sixteen—who had lost her at half that age—could so readily conjure them.

The dialogue is sharp and Rabb does a nice job at making the stage directions feel natural, but you wonder whether the looming conspiracies and political labyrinth are a bit too much for the upshot. That said, it’s hard to imagine prose being more finely tuned in a film noir, especially against the backdrop of an unforgiving Berlin so much better seen in the shadows than in light.

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