The first in a series, the novel follows Hannah Vogel, a crime reporter during Germany’s Weimar Republic (1918 – 1933). Since most readers wouldn’t take a woman seriously, she writes under a male pseudonym, which many female writers did back in those days. A war widow, although her marriage was brief before her husband was killed in France, Hannah is a modern woman of the era, one of Germany’s neue frauen – new women.
However, Hannah’s independence does not mean she is an anachronism. She is riddled with self-doubt and constricted by her gender, and when she discovered her brother Ernst’s body in the “Hall of the Unnamed Dead,” Hannah is wracked by grief. An out of the closet homosexual, Ernst has integrated himself in Berlin’s gay scene, which was world-famous at the time. Many of the scenes take place in historically accurate establishments, e.g. the El Dorado nightclub.
To complicate matters, Hannah discovers little Anton, a five-year-old boy who claims that Ernst is his father and that she is his mother. This mystery of Anton’s true parentage forms the core of the novel, which is a descent into conspiracy and decadence. Added to the mix are an interesting cast of secondary characters, most notable is Wilhelm Lehmann, a member of the Nazi SA – the Sturmabteilung. In another novel, Wilhelm might have been nothing more than a racist brute, but Cantrell’s writes him as a three-dimensional character. A Nazi yes, but also naïve, surprisingly gentle, and a homosexual who has a past with Hannah’s brother.
Anyone who has studied the Nazi movement’s early years will know that the SA had a surprising number of gay men, in particular, its leader – Ernst Roehm, who never hid his homosexuality. As this is set in 1931, Roehm makes an appearance and has a huge impact on the story. A Trace of Smoke’s atmosphere is dark and full of dread, amplified by the persistent reminder that Germany is mired in the Great Depression. Hannah is constantly thinking about food and money, which adds to the realism and desperation of the times.
A Trace of Smoke will satisfy lovers of mysteries, noir, and historical fiction of a particularly grim era.
Rebecca Cantrell Interview
1) What inspired you to write the book?
When I was a teenager I went to Germany as an exchange student. I lived with a host family in Berlin and one of my host brothers was gay. We often went out dancing at various clubs. For spring break I went to Dachau. It was a cold day, snow on the ground, gray sky, and I walked around by myself. Hanging on the way of one room was a poster with triangles that had been used to mark the prisoners—red for communist, yellow for Jewish, purple for Jehovah’s witness, black for Roma, brown for criminals, and pink for homosexuals. It brought me up short to realize that my host brother would have ended up here forty years before, that our trips out dancing might have been enough to destroy his life. I researched it more and more. When I wrote A Trace of Smoke, I wanted to show the world where that could have happened—the amazing and vibrant world of Weimar-era Berlin before it descended into Nazism.
2) What research did you do for the book?
I majored in European History, German, and Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon, so you could say my research started years before I started. I even wrote my senior thesis about the Nazi treatment of gays and lesbians. Once I started the book, I found out I didn’t know nearly enough. I’d read many secondary sources (like Robert Plant’s The Pink Triangle, William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich), but what I needed was the hear the voices of the people living in the time. Luckily, there were many wonderful accounts and diaries written about that period (Blood and Banquets by Bella Fromm, Harry Kessler’s diaries). I also consulted Voluptuous Panic by Mel Gordon for more information on the underground and bar scene. And I purchased a bound copy of the Berlin Illustrierte Zeitung from the weeks where the story is set so I would know the day-to-day concerns, jokes, advertisements, and so on. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a good place to start. Garden of Beasts by Erik Larsen wasn’t published yet, but that’s another wonderful book of the period.
3) Was there anything about Weimar Berlin that surprised you?
The vibrant and open gay life. Did you know there were more gay newspapers and publications in Berlin in the 1920s than in New York in the 1970s? I didn’t. And also the sense of surprise that the Nazis were being taken seriously and coming to power. With the benefit of hindsight, we imagine that it was inevitable, but it didn’t feel like that to the people living through it.
4) There is a great deal of seediness in the novel, particularly in Anton’s background. Did you always want to incorporate Weimar Berlin’s vice or did the story lead you in that direction?
I always knew that Ernst would be gay and that led the story into a certain milieu, but most of the details of Anton’s background I discovered during my research.
5) Hannah Vogel is a reporter, but like most female reporters of the time, wrote under a male pen name. Female reporters had less authority than there male counterparts. Did you always want to write a female protagonist or, as with the previous question, did the story lead you there?
Originally, Hannah was a man and a homicide detective, but after about 50 pages I realized that I wanted to have the person who solved Ernst’s murder be someone who had loved him all his life. And then Hannah appeared. I’ve since written a novella from Ernst’s point of view, so I guess I got to do both sides.
6) Weimar Berlin was well known for its gay clubs and the Nazi SA was also somewhat notorious for having many homosexuals in its ranks. Again, was this a conscious choice to have it a major plot element or did the story lead you there?
When writing about gay Nazis, it’s hard not to come upon Ernst Röhm, isn’t it? He was such a fascinating character—powerful Nazi, Hitler’s right hand man, gifted organizer, decorated soldier, and openly gay. He was a man of many contradictions, and it was interesting to see how he navigated his world.
7) Wilhelm Lehmann, an SA man, is an interesting character. A gay Nazi, he is not presented as evil but rather misguided. Since Nazis are usually depicted as black and white evil, was it difficult to write him this way?
No. He’s young and naïve. He doesn’t understand the full scope of what his choices will mean to him and the wider world. But, even if he did, Nazis were human beings and they had complicated emotions and reasons, just like everyone. There’s more to be learned by recognizing our shared humanity than simplifying and demonizing characters. Good people can do evil things, and evil people can do good ones.
8) If there is one true villain, it’s Ernst Roehm. For anyone unfamiliar with him, how similar do you think the Roehm of your book is to his historical counterpart?
I did a great deal of research to make him as close as possible. I read his autobiography (a war booty copy at UC Berkeley) and accounts from those who talked to him. But I made up great swathes of things as well to create the story.
9) Can you give us a sneak peek at the other Hannah Vogel books? Is the series over or do you have other stories in mind?
A Trace of Smoke is the first in the series, set in 1931 after Röhm has returned from Bolivia and the Nazis are rising to power. Next up is A Night of Long Knives, set in 1934 during the purge of the same name, where Hitler has him murdered, along with about a thousand other political and personal enemies. Then A Game of Lies, set during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Fourth is A City of Broken Glass, set during the November pogrom in 1938. I wrote a prequel novella from Ernst Vogel’s point of view, Cigarette Boy and Other Stories. Hannah has many more adventures ahead!
10) What advice can your give writers (including myself) who would like to write stories about Weimar Germany?
I hope you enjoy research! There are many wonderful sources to consult as you create your own version of that world. Have fun immersing yourself. Then try not to hit the readers over the head with your newfound knowledge. Tell them what they need to know, when they need to know it, but no more than that.