Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Jonathan Rabb writes a thriller set during the Spanish Civil War

I have enjoyed Rabb’s novels in the past, and I thought this one about the Spanish Civil War sounded intriguing.

The Second Son

The Second Son (304 pages, Farrar, Strauss and Grioux, $26) is another masterful novel by Jonathan Rabb. It tells the story of a liberal German Jew, who has been Chief of Police in Berlin until the mid-1930s. After he is asked to retire early, he decides he should go to Spain to look for his son, a filmmaker, who has gone missing just as the vents of the Spanish Civil War get most intense.

Nikolai Hoffner, the hero, has figured in both Rosa and Shadow and Light, and this is the last in a trilogy. In this novel, Hoffner, seasoned and nearly disillusioned as he is, realizes that there is little place for him in Berlin. His son’s disappearance at first seems like an excuse to get away; but as the novel develops, it becomes easier to sense his real dedication to the boy.

The early chapters of the novel involve getting out of Berlin just as Nazi power is reaching its height. As Police Chief, Nikolai has known and dealt with a lot of underworld characters, and they are the ones he turns to in hopes of getting a plane to increasingly war-torn Spain. Even at this early stage it becomes clear that Germany is deeply involved in the Spanish enterprise, supplying Franco and his soldiers with tanks, guns, and other machinery that they need to overrun the peninsula. Nikolai finds himself confronted with details about the secret arms shipment, and at first he thinks that his son was trying to get this information to him.

While in Barcelona he meets a woman, Mila. She is a doctor, and she takes him home and, in a sense, takes him in. Before long she is accompanying him on the search for his son. Her own brother has started fighting on the Franco side, and she, a staunch republican, wants to find him and see whether she can make any sense of his decision.

As Nikolai gets to know Mila, the relation becomes deeper; and before long they become the chief support of the other as the situation in Spain becomes less and less tenable. Because Nikolai speaks decent Spanish and can do a commanding job of self presentation, for part of the expedition he pretends to be a high-ranking Nazi official. This gets them closer to the their goal, but it doesn’t stop Nikolai from being exposed and thrown into prison. As he languishes there he starts to see what kind of a trap he has walked into, and he worries as much about Mila, his friend, as he does about his son.

In the end, the situation in Spain only gets worse, and Rabb makes it clear how deeply all the major powers are implicated in what has been happening just by turning their backs on the truth. As Franco receives the shipments from Germany, his progress through the country is remarkable. Nikolai and Mila escape just in time.

I won’t say whether or not Nikolai finds his son, but the last sections of the novel are truly intense. What started out as a quest becomes a bitter family battle, and the results would be brutal if Nikolai did not feel that he had Mila to turn to after all.

This is a taut and well-written novel that is in keeping with Rabb’s record. As other critics have said, he is a writer to contend with the likes of Alan Furst and Philip Kerr. I recommend it.

Jonathan Rabb

Get a copy of The Second Son at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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