Most people of this century are more familiar with the horrors surrounding World War II, not World War I. No matter how exactly this oversight on the part of both wars’ progeny occurred, Rebecca Cantrell points out the fact of it clearly in A Trace of Smoke by noticing that there are no coincidences in life, only people who cannot see the whole picture. Instead of creating a mystery novel set near the onset of World War II, the author takes the reader back in time by building her story’s environment very carefully. Hannah Vogel, the female protagonist who has beauty and the brains of a master detective, leads the way into a world devastated by the events of World War I and a nation desperate for change: pre-Nazi Germany.
Hannah’s dedication to her job as a crime reporter results in the discovery of her gay brother’s death, and with this realization comes a dangerous portal into the rising power and importance of the Nazis. Pre-existent circumstances forbid Hannah to turn over the case of her brother’s murder to the police, but the more she uncovers about her brother’s affairs, the more she is plunged into the mayhem of what Germany is slowly becoming—a throne for Adolf Hitler and his close companions. The infamous Ernst Röhm also has a significant part to play as Hannah is faced with the inner reflection of Germany’s deceptive appearance, a dark underworld brimming with crimes and a lack of respect for individual lives. In its graphic descriptions of how homosexuality and the Nazi party went hand in hand despite official decrees, A Trace of Smoke is truly staggering and unprecedented in its clarity.
Although the novel’s central mystery has a subtle unweaving of its many layers by Cantrell, the way the author exposes the truth of those times with such authenticity and color is even more remarkable. A Trace of Smoke smolders at all the right moments and brings to light unnoticed chain reactions of modern history. Even with the onerous task of narrating the Nazi party’s initial influence on the German public, Cantrell draws her illustrations of Berlin with swift and bold strokes. Hannah herself is an extremely likeable character, so strong and intelligent that she compares to Sherlock Holmes. Despite her self-doubt and vulnerability, Hannah is the kind of hero one wants to see in historical novels, an honorable woman living in treacherous times who can analyze life for herself and strategize in advance for oncoming battles with self-control and keen perception.
A Trace of Smoke is categorized as crime genre material. However, this “crime story” begins a series of audacious historical novels that not only interpret the political tempests of the first half of the twentieth century but also define the emotions and actions of the German people through the eyes of a very modern woman like Hannah. Cantrell’s debut novel truly has all the needed elements of mystery and suspense to make it memorable and leave the reader desperately wanting to snatch the next volume in her series. However, it is the author’s apparent ability to turn history into a fascinating crime exposé brimming with beguiling details and very realistic characters that makes A Trace of Smoke haunting.
Original review: Part 1: ‘A Trace of Smoke’ is a mind-blowing historical read; Part 2: ‘A Trace of Smoke’ is a mind-blowing historical read, Examiner.com