Ruin Value by J Sydney Jones
The Germany of 1945 after the end of the war was in terrible shape. It was not politically convenient at the time to tell the victorious citizens back home just how much damage the Allies had managed to inflict upon German cities. Nor did the Allied leaders admit just how much aid was going to be necessary to keep the survivors alive, particularly since contemporary US policy was to deny food to surviving Germans. There was also a conspiracy of silence as about half-a-million Germans disappeared to the East never to be seen again. No-one liked to talk about revenge through ethnic cleansing. Even today, this is a very sensitive subject. Those who were left first camped out in the ruins, chasing food on the black market, using cigarettes as currency. As the months passed and after the end of the events described in this book, they endured what’s become known as the hunger winter 1946/7 where survivors fled the cities and tried to find food in the countryside. This was despite Hoover’s reluctant agreement in 1946 to allow charitable organisations to begin food shipments to Germany to prevent the children from starving. The title, Ruin Value by J Sydney Jones (Mysteriouspress.com original, 2013) A Mystery of the Third Reich is a reference to the legacy of the Reich as betrayal, ruin, rubble and grief. Although there were scare stories of Werwolf brigades left behind as guerillas, the reality was a docile people desperate to survive and find any relatives still alive. While the Russians and French engaged in reprisals, the British and Americans put their weight behind the trials at Nuremberg. Ironically, the trials evoked little local interest. The people couldn’t have cared less what happened to the men who’d led them into this mess.
My reason for starting in this way is that modern generations fail to understand the true extent of the horror experienced both by the German survivors and the occupying forces that became their jailers. Although this book to some extent skates over the surface of the problems, it’s good to see a writer of this quality take the brave decision to set the book in this somewhat controversial period of history.
Captain Nathaniel Morgan, born Morgenstern, is set up as the potential scapegoat if the Allies can’t identify the killer of three men of different nationalities in different parts of Nuremberg. At three day intervals, the killer has slashed the throats of a Russian, American and French soldier. To help, Morgan secures the release of ex-Chief Inspector Werner Beck, a German police officer who had fallen foul of politically connected factions at the end of the war, but who has experience in tracking serial killers. Still short-handed, they recruit Wieland Imhofer, a one-armed private investigator, to help them pursue the killer. Meanwhile Kate Wallace, daughter of a powerful US Senator, is learning her way around the city as a reporter on her first important overseas job. The investigators fear a British soldier will be next, yet the fourth victim turns out to be a Polish civilian. Curiously, this slight shift in the pattern of nationalities and the dates gives them an insight into the plans of the serial killer. Two possible theories emerge. From the first two deaths, this could be someone eliminating the competition in the black market. But the French officer seems not to have had direct connections to illegal trade. This leads to the second theory which is that the murders are political and leading up to a grand gesture to coincide with the first major trial at the Nuremberg court. News that the Allies can’t stop a serial killer and some more serious “terrorist” outrage would seriously distract world attention from the trial itself. For that reason, the Allied Powers are anxious to prevent news of the killings leaking to the Press. Morgan and Beck come under increasing pressure to catch the killer before news leaks.
Although there’s one convenient coincidence which ultimately leads to the discovery of the killer’s identity, this is a nicely paced investigation as the Jewish and German policemen set differences aside and try to act like “proper” policemen in a world turned upside down by the war. Setting everything against the ruins of a once great city at a moment the Allies want to make a pivotal entry in the discourse of their victory narrative gives us a dramatic backdrop. There’s a pleasing confluence of historical factors in play in these ruins. People are the sum of their life experiences. Many Germans have been reduced to little more than feral beasts, abandoning much of their humanity in their drive to survive. Others have managed to maintain something of their past status and dignity. While above the chaos and, to some extent, indifferent to it, the four occupying powers spar amongst themselves over the true nature of their roles in this catastrophic situation. It’s through this tension and the interactions between the different groups that the truth will slowly emerge. In this let’s remember that there were good Germans like Oskar Schindler who helped Jews, and that many of the Allies were profoundly anti-Semitic and indelibly racist. There’s a revealing moment when a young white GI shoots a black solder dead in the street only to be arrested by Morgan. In this book, the minorities have to stand up for each other against the bigotry surrounding them. Some of those we meet look forward to a future when differences will have faded away. Others are bound in the past and committed to the notion that differences must be maintained at all costs.
While I have the slight sense that punches have been pulled so that modern sensibilities will not be overly disturbed, Ruin Value remains a bold piece of writing and a very pleasing serial killer investigation and thriller. It’s well worth reading.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.