I read parts 1 and 2 of Cay Rademacher’s trilogy while in Hamburg last year. I particularly enjoyed their firm grounding in the ruins and rubble of the city following WWII. The final part, The Forger, preserves that while moving forward in time to 1948 and the eve of the currency reform, the replacement of the Reichsmark with the Deutschmark.

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Following a near fatal sbooting, Chief Inspector Stave decides to transfer from homicide to the department combatting the black market. With his transfer comes a distinct loss of both status and cooperation from other colleagues. No matter a brush with death is always likely to lead to a reassessment of personal priorities, and Stave decides that rebuilding his relationship with his East Prussian refugee and salvaged-art-dealing lover, Anna, is his.

His first case in what will become the future fraud office enables him to reestablish contact with her. A bronze statue is recovered from the basement of a building fie bombed in 1943. Alongside it the body of a Jew. The homicide officer is quick to write off the body as just another war victim,but Stave, whose old habits are dying hard, remains suspicious. What do the mysterious marks on the sole of the dead man’s shoes reveal, and how was it even possible for a Jew to be living in the middle of the city in 1943? Of course, Stave cannot investigate the death openly but his old alliance with a Jewish judge and the chief forensic officer allow him to proceed discretely. And researching the provenance of the statue leads him into the world of “degenerate” art collectors, Jewish sympathisers, Nazi bully boys and bona fide war criminals.

A second discrete investigation ensues at the behest of Lieutenant MacDonald, member of the British occupying forces, with whom Stave has forged a mutually respectful working relationship and friendship. Forged low value Deutschmarks have been sold on the black market and the British are keen to avoid any resultant political embarrassment. As Stave and MacDonald close in on the distributor, a surprising link is made to the first case.

Suffice to say that the note forging is a misdirection of sorts because there is a lot of other forgery at play. People are creating new identities, trying to outrun their pasts. Whether this is possible is, I would say, the underlying theme of the novel. Some manage it, others find forgiveness, while other find tracks they thought they had buried, uncovered once more. What really satisifes is that retribution is served where it is most deserved.

The authenticity of the historical context is superb: the detail of the destroyed, wet and damp city, the appalling living conditions of the poor (making Dickensian poverty seem luxurious by comparison), the integration of actual crimes. The relationships between the characters feel real and are at times quite moving. I love that Rademacher ends his trilogy with a sense of hope. I hate, of course, that the trilogy has ended, but with MacDonald’s redeployment to Berlin (just in time for the blockade) time is up for the partnership in Hamburg.

I can’t recommend this trilogy enough. You could read The Forger as a standalone, but don’t sell yourself short. Start at the beginning with A Murderer in Ruins and, once you’ve got used to the measured and thoughtful pace, savour every word and detail. I did and no doubt will again.

Translated from German by Peter Millar