A Trace of Smoke | By Rebecca Cantrell | Forge | 300 pages
Reviewed by Christine Thomas

Published 6.28.09 in the Honolulu Advertiser

In her earnest debut “A Trace of Smoke,” Rebecca Cantrell transports readers to pre-World War Two, 1931 Berlin, and the puzzling murder of Ernst Vogel, a cabaret “chanteuse” and baby brother of spunky protagonist turned crime-solver Hannah Vogel.

In the novel’s evocative and clever beginning, Cantrell precisely lays out the necessary context to launch the story from the first “dark” scene (Cantrell repeats this word throughout the first paragraph), when Hannah recognizes Ernst in a photograph posted on the Hall of the Unnamed Dead. But when she immediately meets with two policemen—one sporting an SS button—to gather material for her work as a crime journalist, she has keeps quiet and hides her grief. Cantrell’s tidy twist is that Hannah and Ernst have loaned their identity papers to help Jewish friends escape to America, and she can’t let it be known that Ernst is dead until the friends are safe in America.

While the growing Nazi movement and its anti-Semitism are inescapably central to the novel, Cantrell’s choice of era and location stems mainly from an interest sparked while studying for three years in Berlin. The backdrop, of course, has inherent appeal, but it also allows Cantrell to play with stereotypically repressed German interaction through formal dialogue, and to ground her story in real aspects of history. For instance, Ernst sings at the El Dorado, a gay club that became a Nazi headquarters in 1932, and becomes involved with Ernst Röhm, an openly gay, decorated WW Two soldier who aided Hitler’s rise to power. And Cantrell’s well placed period details, such as noting one train passenger reading the Berlin paper and the other the “Nazi rag,” Vogel’s dearth of food and persistent hunger, and Ernst’s affinity for absinthe subtly but effectively evoke atmosphere.

Rising above politics and place is Hannah, who is a likable and captivating protagonist, both vulnerable and strong. Cantrell draws her a solid foundation, from striking independence to firm socialist politics and burgeoning feminism, but despite this savvy, her crime writing experience, and her commitment to finding Ernst’s murderer, at first Hannah is surprisingly a slow on the uptake as an amateur detective. And even though Cantrell largely unfolds clues so that Hannah and readers put the pieces together at once, there are flaws in the suspense, and in Hannah’s observations. Even when answers have been plainly stated, Hannah keeps questioning repetitively, while other times there’s simply no justification for events other than plot function.

But as Cantrell sifts through Hannah’s relationship with Ernst, such as her disapproval of his relationship with an older, controlling Rudolf who “had turned him from a serious student into a chanteuse,” Hannah’s (and Cantrell’s) skills sharpen. And about halfway through the novel, the pieces set and the mystery really picks up speed, delighting with surprising twists—complete with the intrigue of a famous jewel belonging to a Bavarian Count, revelations of Ernst angering “the leader of the most powerful private army in Germany,” Hannah finding her own romantic lead and love for a mysterious young boy who endearingly speaks like a 1931 Berlin film character.

This compelling momentum overshadows any minor hiccups, and as Cantrell’s debut finishes with flourish, Hannah Vogel lives on in the imagination, and one might hope—in a future installment.