AW HAMMOND The Berlin Traitor. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
It’s July 1945, and the war in Europe is finally over. Auguste Duchene has survived, but the past will not let go.
The second novel featuring Duchene, The Berlin Traitor closely follows the first, The Paris Collaborator, which was set in and around occupied Paris.
PARIS – Tuesday, 31 July 1945. The man stood beside him, too close for it to be accidental, even in a crowded bar. Auguste Duchene could smell the brandy on the stranger’s breath. If he was lucky, it was just a swig for confidence. If he was unlucky, the better part of the bottle. Drunk is hard to reason with, and reasoning was what he needed to do right now. Now that he had a gun held to his ribs.
The Paris Collaborator described how Duchene, a former schoolteacher, had turned to finding missing people as a way to survive. Approached by the French Resistance to locate a missing priest and a cache of stolen weapons, his reluctance to get involved found him caught between the Resistance and a powerful Nazi officer looking for a suspected German deserter. Both sides attempt to use Duchene’s daughter Marienne as a bargaining chip, leaving him in the difficult position of deciding how far he’ll go to keep her safe. All of which has left him with a reputation as a German collaborator.
Come 1945, The Berlin Traitor sees Duchene hiding in Paris, looking for a way to escape the deadly fate of collaborators all over the city, when he’s coerced, this time by a combination of the French and American forces in Berlin, into assisting with the search for a notorious Gestapo oberführer he had encountered during the war. Although initially he is given a slightly different explanation:
‘I thought the Soviets were our allies.’
‘We had the same enemy, but it’s not quite the same thing. Now that the fascists have been dealt with, it’s back to taking a hard look at the communists.’
Despite Duchene’s daughter Marienne now being safe from any involvement in this particular undertaking, there’s another complication in the family. The earlier novel touched on Duchene’s wife Sabine and her background as a communist activist. Now in The Berlin Traitor her role becomes more significant, although Duchene’s knowledge of her current situation is sketchy, as he points out to the men tasked with talking him into joining the hunt.
‘Your wife,’ said Greer, ‘she was a communist?’
‘You’ve done some digging. She was. Is she still? Who knows? I don’t even know if she’s still alive. We haven’t spoken in eight years. I believe she got out of Spain. That’s what her last letter said. After that there was no contact.’
Hesitant as Duchene is to get involved, he reluctantly finds himself agreeing. It is a way out of Paris, after all, although he refuses to take the re-enlistment path on offer.
The Berlin that he escapes to is far from safe, however. An absolute wasteland after the bombing and the fighting, there is palpable tension growing between the two forces that control the now divided city, with the Allies and the Russians each seeing a new enemy over the barricades. When Duchene arrives in this extremely febrile environment, he finds both sides in pursuit of this unnamed, but notoriously dangerous, oberführer. He also finds himself paired with Captain Lewis Raye, a New Orleans native and a perfect partner for the determinedly civilian Duchene.
… the major stopped and turned to Duchene. ‘You don’t want to be ordered to kill. Fine, so you’re not military. But I’m giving you some advice here. Captain Raye might not be your commanding officer, but he knows what he’s doing. Listen to him, stay close to him, and you’ll get through this thing. He’s gotten his men through much worse.’
Duchene and Raye work firstly to put a name to the mysterious SS-Oberführer Volker Sprenger, and then track him down before the Soviets. A clandestine mission over the border into Soviet-controlled Berlin finds them arguing about whether the patrol who have just arrested the German woman they have come to talk to is armed.
‘They might be unarmed.’
‘That’s some wishful thinking. They’re all wearing jackets. Who does that in this heat?’
As if to underline the point, the Soviet woman removed her cap to wipe her brow. Dark hair tumbled free. It was Sabine.
The storyline moves backwards and forwards between the current situation in Berlin and the hunt for the wanted oberführer, and the past in 1936 Paris and the events that led to Sabine abandoning her family and becoming completely committed to the Communist cause, first in Spain and now, seemingly, as part of the Russian efforts in Berlin.
Duchene must deal with the shock of realising his wife is so close, and their paths so widely divergent. It’s one thing to have no idea if she was dead or alive, but to realise that they are now so clearly on different sides really requires some adjustment. All while receiving threats from shadowy characters in a society that’s still dealing with the violence and deprivation of the war. Of course, it turns out that the hunt for the oberführer is only part of the story.
The search and the race to stay ahead of the Soviet teams is well balanced against the complications in Duchene’s personal life. The relationship between husband and wife is fascinating, their different ideologies competing with their responsibility to the family, and their daughter in particular. There’s also love that has never really gone away, and the heartbreak of what you must lose when there is a cause you are passionately committed to. This is starkly yet compassionately evoked, giving rise to a difficult question for the reader – would you be prepared to walk away from everything you loved for a political and societal system that you see as the ideal for all?
And he and Sabine are trapped by their pasts. Not just the choices they made to survive the war, the sides they chose, but the ways in which they’ve kept themselves alive. Perhaps he would never see Sabine again, perhaps they would never get the chance to forge a new life together. But, as she says, they are both survivors, and if they both hold true to her belief, then maybe they can find a way.
It’s in the arena of the personal that the Auguste Duchene series really stands out. The deprivation of war, the appalling acts committed during World War II, and the arbitrary lines drawn on maps in the aftermath are areas that have frequently been explored in non-fiction and fiction. Drilling down to the effects of those divides across a small family of three people provides a different insight.
AW Hammond The Berlin Traitor Bonnier Echo 2023 PB 320pp $32.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.
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