ROSA by Jonathan Rabb

Achtung, achtung, wilkommen zu Berlin. It is January 1919, the Kaiser is gone, and Germany has lost the Great War. More important, socialist revolution has been crushed. 

We see the evidence--"Police headquarters were a disaster. . . . For a place he had been coming to six days a week for the past eighteen years, it has almost unrecognizable. The once imposing line of red brick archways looked ashamed of itself. Four days removed from the final assault, and the crumbling masonry--chalk-white--was doing little to hide the naked slats of wood that pockmarked the façade. Worse were the iron gates that skulked behind, all at wild angles, bent like spoons for a child’s amusement. And along the lower floors, turreted windows peered out blindly from empty sockets, shards of broken glass still clinging to their disfigured panes. Such was the crowning achievement of Alexanderplatz in the wake of revolution" (19). 

Or do we? Has Germany been defeated and revolution put down? Not so as anyone would notice, for turmoil roils beneath the surface. 

We see Berlin immediately post-trauma through the eyes of Kriminal-kommisar, later Oberkommisar, Nikolai Hoffner. He and his assistant, Hans Fichte, seek to find and capture a serial killer who etches intricate patterns into the backs of his victims. The story opens when Hoffner and Fichte find the body of Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish, secularized Jew and ardent Socialist (Red Rosa), in the Landwehr Canal. To Hoffner’s detached mind, Rosa doesn’t fit the pattern, and he begins a search to find the pattern. This quest takes him to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where he meets with the director, Albert Einstein, while Fichte flies off to Bruges, Belgium and an insane asylum. Later, the journey includes the lace and glove department of the great Berlin department store, KaDeWe, a party of artists, where Hoffner runs into Käthe Kollwitz, and, Munich, where he meets nascent Nazis. Hoffner draws the attention and animosity of the Polpo, the political police, as well as the behind the scenes help of Leo Jogiches, Rosa’s lover. Hoffner needs all his skill, intelligence, and determination to pull all the disparate pieces together, find the killers, and understand their motives. 

Two things are key to this novel--connections and relationships--and Rabb never telegraphs either. Rabb challenges the readers, expects them to pay attention. He rarely repeats himself. There are few of the conventional detective monologues, internal or external. Everything Rabb uses, such as the engineer and his family who are living in the unfinished U-bahn tunnels of the Rosenthaler Platz station near where they find Rosa’s body, has importance in the story--even if it appears, at the moment of reading, a complete throwaway. Like Hoffner himself, we the readers have to make sense of the massive amount of evidence, interpret it, and draw the correct conclusions. Rabb does play fair, and if we paid active attention in our reading, we do have enough to put the puzzle together.

The character of Nikolai Hoffner, however, may be the greatest challenge to the reader. His personal world reflects the physical and political world around him. He is terribly flawed and emotionally detached, and he verges on the carelessly amoral. Hoffner’s relationships with his late partner, his wife, his sons, his current partner, and his colleagues are all strained to the limit or they fall apart like the crumbling masonry at the Alex. He beds Fichte's girl because he can, and his relationship with his oldest son, Sascha, fractures beyond repair when the boy catches Hoffner with her.  

Hoffner had never heard her [his wife Martha] speak like this. “You should have  told him [Sascha] what he wanted to hear.”

“And what was that?” she said coldly. She needed to hear it from him.

Hoffner waited and then said, “That I’m a son of a bitch, and that I deserve his hatred” (339).

It is hard to disagree with Hoffner’s sister-in-law: “You are some piece of work” (368). Only his brutal honesty--he will face and acknowledge his manifold sins--and his unwillingness to give up save him for the reader. Despite all his faults, Hoffner does find justice for Rosa, and by extension, Germany.

We know the German authorities, such as they were, hunted Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht down and killed them in January 1919. Her body did not appear until months later, provoking a whispering campaign of rumors about what happened. Jonathan Rabb has crafted a wild, articulate, plausible, well-written piece of speculative and suspense fiction about how and why she was killed. This is one possible past.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst