January 1919. Berlin. The (misnamed) “Spartacist” rising has been crushed. Rosa Luxemburg is missing. We now know she had been murdered on 15 January, but her body was only found at the end of May, floating in Berlin’s Landwehr Canal. Into this void of four missing months Jonathan Rabb weaves a complex crime novel centred on the fate of her corpse.
Yes, you read that right: a crime novel, complete with macabre serial killer. But before the entire readership of Socialist Review lets out an outraged cry that “it was the Freikorps that did it” – a political killing by the state-sponsored paramilitaries of the counterrevolution – this isn’t the whole story here.
Like the best crime fiction, Rabb merges brutal crimes and sinister conspiracies, stripping away the layers that link the underworld to the circles of the powerful.
The structure of the novel is conventional enough, even if the choice of subject matter is surprising. There is the complex, appealing but flawed hero-detective, Nikolai Hoffner, at its centre.
Again, like much noir crime writing, the urban landscape – Berlin here, of course – is a brooding and central presence throughout. But there are also walk-on parts for other real historical figures apart from Rosa herself. Albert Einstein and Dietrich Eckart, Hitler’s early mentor, both appear. Much more central to the story is Leo Jogiches, Rosa’s comrade and former lover, and a master of underground conspiratorial political work.
Rabb has done his historical homework and there aren’t many irritating slip-ups. He can be forgiven for assuming the German Revolution ended three months after it overthrew the Kaiser. After all this is the staple of most historians, let alone novelists.
In fact, Rabb’s real interest is not the possibility of socialist revolution in the years after the war, more a foreboding that the forces of reaction unleashed in these years will return. “These men will come again,” Hoffner says of the Freikorps. It is the future shadow of Nazism that hangs heaviest over the novel.
Rosa is a good and enjoyable read, but not for me great novel. It’s the subject matter that is intriguing and if like me you’re a fan of both Rosa and noir crime fiction, it will prove irresistible.
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