Berlin, November 1932. Inspektor-Detektiv Willi Kraus has been called in to investigate a gruesome case. A woman’s corpse has been discovered, her legs grotesquely mutilated backward. So begins The Sleepwalkers by Paul Grossman, a historical thriller set in the last days of the Weimar Republic.
Well, at least we know from hindsight that these were the last days of the Weimar Republic. The people experiencing their day-to-day lives were unaware what lay around the corner, even though the Nazis were constantly in the news. The novel actually begins with characters discussing the latest election results, which were devastating to the Hitler and the Nazi Party. It seemed that Nazism had crested and was on its way out before ever coming to power.
But during the Weimar Era, there was a general degree of tolerance throughout Germany, even though hate bubbled beneath the surface with intermittent eruptions (the Kapp Putsch, the Feme murders, Beer Hall Putsch, etc). There were even some Jews in the Berlin Police, most notably Bernard Weiss. The fictional Willi Krauss is one of these German Jews on the side of law and order, hated by both the extreme Left (KPD) and the extreme Right (NSDAP).
Willi had previously caught a high-profile serial killer nicknamed der Kinderfresser (literally, the Child-Eater), so he’s the obvious choice to solve this poor woman’s gruesome murder. Added to his problems though, is the fact that a visiting Bulgarian princess has been found sleepwalking through the streets of Berlin, potentially igniting an international incident.
Digging deeper, he discovers that this Bulgarian princess had attended a show of the Great Gustave, a hypnotist at a unique cabaret named “Hell.” Connecting the dots, Willi sees a link between the Great Gustave and the mutilated dead girl. Willi also becomes involved with Paula, the dead girl’s roommate, who is also a prostitute, one of many in depression-era Berlin. The two deduce that the Great Gustave is hypnotizing certain women to be sent off to their gory deaths. But who is behind these grotesque murders? They hatch a plan to have Paula be hypnotized by the Great Gustave, with Willi tracking close behind – and that’s when everything goes awry.
The Sleepwalkers deals a lot with the politics of the time, introducing numerous historical figures like General Kurt von Schleicher, Franz von Papen, Paul von Hindenburg, and, of course, Adolf Hitler. There are many scenes and comments regarding the pseudo-civil war between the Communists and Nazis, which are not just backdrops, but play directly into the plot. I really love fiction that incorporates the politics of the era into the plot, rather than reducing them to background noise. Lots of great little details are sprinkled throughout the novel, such as the strangely popular nudist movement to the “boot girl” prostitutes.
The Sleepwalkers is book 1 of a trilogy of Willi Kraus novels, but the second installment, Children of Wrath, actually serves as a prequel, set in 1929. You can read them out of order, since Grossman does a good job at keeping them self-contained and catching you up to speed, never leaving you lost in the plot. His prose is simple, tight, and fast-paced, making The Sleepwalkers great historical pulp fiction.
Paul Grossman Interview
1) Compared to Children of Wrath, the plot of The Sleepwalkers is far more rooted in the politics of late 1932/early 1933 Germany. Was this intentional?
It was very intentional. I wanted the extremely dramatic and now little-known events of the Nazi takeover to be an integral part of the overall drama.
2) Willi’s wife is dead at the beginning of the novel (she died in an epilogue of Children of Wrath). What was your motive behind this? Did you just want Willi to be available for Paula?
The only reason Vicki died at the end of Children of Wrath is because she was already dead in The Sleepwalkers. I had started Willi off in Sleepwalkers as a widower and single-father.
3) Was there anything you had in the original draft of The Sleepwalkers (and Children of Wrath for that matter) that was cut out?
Nothing major was cut by the publisher. I’d done my fair share of revision and editing but never removed anything very major.
4) Was there any real-life inspiration for Willi Kraus in the German Police?
Yes. The head of the Berlin Police force at that time was a Jew named Bernhard Weiss. He was credited with turning the police of Germany’s capital into one of the world’s best, initiating such avant-garde innovations as mobile labs dispatched to crime scenes. Weiss ran into savage conflict with Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels and was quickly forced to flee Germany after the Nazi takeover. I liked the idea of writing about a Jew who had power over the Nazis, however briefly.
5) The novel has many historical figures and events that have been fictionalized for the story. For example, Josef Mengele, the Reichstag Fire, and Kurt von Schleicher. Was it always you intent to use them in a fictional manner or did the story necessitate that?
It’s a historical novel so I wanted base it as much as I could in the reality of the time.
6) Was The Sleepwalkers a tough sell to publishers?
No. It was miraculously fast. After years of unsuccessful attempts at selling a book, I was shocked with this one. I got an agent in one week, and he sold it in another.
7) Historians are divided on who started the Reichstag Fire. What’s your opinion? Did Van der Lubbe act alone, was it a Communist conspiracy, or was it a false flag started by the Nazis?
I definitely go with the “false flag” idea.
8) What are you working on currently?
A WW2 romance set in Singapore during the Japanese invasion. Talk about drama!
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