The impetus behind Faye Kellerman's new --- and arguably best --- novel, STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS, was borne out of a desire to connect with a hidden part of her father's life. Kellerman's dad was an Army soldier stationed in Germany during World War II. His fluency in Yiddish resulted in his being assigned to communicate with concentration camp survivors, as well as with average German citizens living around the camps. Many of the latter claimed that they had no idea what was going on, even as the stench of burning bodies could be smelled from miles away. The idea that such a thing could happen is almost inconceivable; the mind turns away from the concept, even as the extensive documentation of these events demonstrates them to be all too true.
STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS does not deal with the Holocaust, however; Kellerman instead chooses to focus on Germany during the period between the first two world wars --- to demonstrate not how such a thing took place, but rather how it came to be.
Kellerman utilizes the mystery suspense genre as an ironic and metaphoric vehicle for exploring this horrific episode in world history. Axel Berg is the novel's primary protagonist. A Munich policeman assigned to the homicide unit, Berg attempts to remain apolitical in a time of heated passion, a time when Adolf Hitler, a controversial figure referred to as "The Austrian," has a small but rapidly growing contingency of followers who are utilizing terror in the streets as a means to achieve their ends. Berg is assigned to investigate the murder of Anna Gross, the wife of a wealthy Jew and the daughter of a successful banker.
The police are not lacking for suspects --- there is Mr. Gross, as well as a mysterious gentleman with whom she was known to keep company --- but they barely have time to investigate before another woman is discovered to have been killed. This murder bears similarities to that of Ms. Gross in the aftermath, if not the execution. Berg is under pressure from Martin Volker, his superior officer, to find the killer, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof, in order to reassure a frightened public. Meanwhile, the people of Munich roil uneasily with the prospect of economic and political uncertainties, as Hitler insidiously makes his move for power.
As always, Kellerman's plotting is first rate and her characterization steadfastly perfect. Berg, in particular, is unforgettable; as he works both with and against the system, he emerges as a flawed but ultimately noble and upright individual who is charged with doing the right thing during a time when such an option perhaps does not exist. The most memorable feature of STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS, however, is the city of Munich. Kellerman captures and details Munich --- the streets, the restaurants, the tenements, the factories --- down to their finest nuance, painting a picture of a culture and society just as it begins a precipitous slide into madness. The irony of the novel's overriding, inherent contradiction --- a serial killer hides in secret, while a man who ultimately instigates the murder of millions parades openly amongst the populace --- will not be lost upon the reader.
STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS is an unrelenting journey into the dark regions of the mind and heart, on scales large and small, dealing with events forgotten and unforgettable. This is a masterpiece from an author who never disappoints. Not to be missed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011