It’s no easy feat to cast a German who admits to cheering Hitler’s election as the lead detective in a murder mystery. But readers quickly discover that little is as it seems in this dark historical thriller based on an actual gruesome crime spree that shook Nazi Germany in the months before the U.S. entered World War II.
Georg Heuser, a talented, young detective who emphasizes to the reader that he never technically joined the Nazi party, is teamed up with a grizzled veteran to find the so-called S-Bahn murderer, who not only violently kills women but also seems to get a sexual thrill out of doing so. Ostland alternates between Heuser’s investigation and that of Paula Siebert, who is sent to Europe more than a decade after WWII’s end to look into Nazi war crimes, including Heuser’s. How did the ambitious Heuser—who went to great lengths to distinguish himself from the thuggish Nazis he loathed—become yet another war criminal? That is the question that propels this insightful novel, which makes strong use of historical events and figures to create two compelling narratives.
Author David Thomas occasionally relies too heavily on telling rather than showing (Heuser superfluously describes himself as “filled with ambition and determination”), and the dialogue at times falls flat. But Heuser is an undoubtedly disturbing and fascinating character, while the (fictional) Siebert stands in for the horrified reader as we learn of the inhuman depths to which Heuser, and so many like him, sank in the name of some grotesque program of racial purity. The S-Bahn killings, Thomas makes painfully clear, foreshadowed the more widespread horrors that Heuser and his comrades inflicted on the civilized world.