Book Review

Rabb’s trilogy finale lacks a finishing touch

By Nan Goldberg
March 4, 2011

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In Jonathan Rabb’s popular “Berlin trilogy,’’ Inspector Nikolai Hoffner spends a lot of time nodding at people as if he understands what they’re talking about, even when he doesn’t. (“Hoffner knew almost nothing. He was having trouble enough keeping up . . .’’; “Hoffner . . . hadn’t the slightest idea what any of it meant’’; “Hoffner nodded, not understanding what the boy meant, and not caring.’’)

Well, neither did I. Too much of this trilogy, and this installment in particular, is a frustrating tangle of hypothetical and factual history, family drama, police procedural, and war story, which add up to less than the sum of their parts.

The story begins in 1919 with “Rosa’’ (published 2005), at the summary execution of Rosa Luxemburg, the famous Socialist Democrat revolutionary. When her corpse disappears, Hoffner, then a German police officer, is assigned to find it.

The second novel, “Shadow and Light’’ (2010), is set in 1927; the Nazis are coming to power in a Germany that seems, at least subliminally, to grasp Hitler’s criminal nature, but doesn’t appear to care. Hoffner’s wife is dead. His son Sascha, who turned his back on his father years ago, has recently joined the Nazi party despite the family’s partly Jewish heritage. Now a chief inspector, Hoffner is assigned to investigate the apparent suicide of a film executive, and soon discovers ties between the dead executive’s Berlin film studio and Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s future propaganda minister.

Now, in “The Second Son,’’ it is 1937. Hoffner’s Jewish blood has gotten him fired from the Berlin police force. But at least the timing is good: He needs to go to Barcelona to look for his younger son, Georg, a newsreel photographer who disappeared just as the Spanish Civil War was breaking out.

Spain’s politics have descended into chaos: anarchists, socialists, communists, anarcho-syndicalists, Marxist-nihilists, and non-Stalinist Soviets are fighting against each other and even among themselves. Then there are the international “observers’’ — from Germany, England, the Soviet Union — each with a political agenda, who view Spain’s war as a dress rehearsal for the larger conflagration they know is coming.

Rabb clearly did his homework — and then some. All three novels occasionally stagger under the weight of his exhaustive research and reluctance to let any of it go to waste.

Still, like 1997’s best-selling term paper, Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,’’ many readers really like the Hoffner trilogy — and you might, too. So I’m not going to be disagreeable about it. I’m just going to respectfully point out why this earnest, hardworking novel falls short as a work of literature.

“She stared across at him, her strength like shattered glass. It hung from them both and fell aimlessly to the ground. Hoffner’s hands ached, and still he gathered up the shards.’’

What? The metaphorical glass hung? Her strength fell aimlessly to the ground? It had shards?

The love scenes are histrionic at best: “Hoffner stared into the eyes, dry and spent. And he saw hope. Hope for himself. . . .

“ ‘There is no choice,’ he said. ‘I love you.’

“He took her in his arms, and . . . [h]e knew he had given himself to her, and nothing as fleeting as doubt would ever enter his mind again. So he waited and let the unbearable sentiment of it take him.’’

And this presumptuous claim: “Fear makes a man cower. Terror gives him strength.’’ Well, sure, sometimes. But it isn’t a given. In this context, it’s a bold but audaciously empty statement, written to impress rather than to suggest a truth.

There are some very effective, workmanlike scenes. On the other hand, I could not find even one spark of brilliance.

Am I asking too much?

Nan Goldberg, a freelance writer and book critic, can be reached at

THE SECOND SON By Jonathan Rabb

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 294 pp., $26