Berlin, 1932. In the final weeks of the Weimar Republic, as Hitler and his National Socialist party angle to assume control of Germany, beautiful girls are seen sleepwalking through the streets. Then, a young woman of mysterious origin, with her legs bizarrely deformed, is pulled dead from the Havel River. Willi Kraus, a high ranking detective in Berlin's police force, begins a murder investigation.
A decorated World War I hero and the nation's most famous detective, Willi also is a Jew. Despite his elite status in the criminal police, he is disturbed by the direction Germany is taking. Working urgently to identify the dead woman and solve the murder, Willi finds his superiors diverting him at every turn, and is forced to waste precious time on a politically-sensitive missing person case. Colleagues seem to avoid him; a man on a streetcar stops him from reading a newspaper over his shoulder; he is uncomfortably aware of being watched. But he persists, and soon enters the dangerous Berlin underworld of debauched nightclubs, prostitutes with secrets to hide, and a hypnotist with troubling connections.
As he moves through darkness closer to the truth, Willi begins to understand that much more than the solution to a murder is at stake. What he discovers will mean that his life, the lives of his friends and family, and Germany itself will never be the same
The Sleepwalkers is a powerful, dramatic debut thriller of a nation's unstoppable corruption, featuring a good man trapped between his duty to serve and his grave doubts about what, and who, he serves.
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St. Martin's Press
October 11, 2010
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Excerpt from The Sleepwalkers by Paul Grossman
Dietrich's legs were magic wands, slim, hypnotic instruments of sorcery that mesmerized millions. Willi could unfortunately only imagine their charms beneath the mannish pantsuit she wore that afternoon to Fritz's. Bored to tears by the political sooth-saying that muscled into every conversation these days, Willi had to fight to keep his eyes open. Lucky for him the tubular Bauhaus chair he was sitting on was killing his ass.
"And for you, Herr Inspektor-Detektiv?"
He reached for another glass of champagne. Even though his brain was flying, this celebration was depressing. Where else would Marlene Dietrich have shown up but Fritz's house-warming? Half of Berlin were best friends with his old war pal. And all of them seemed to have turned out to see his new palace in suburban Grunewald. Sleek, long panes of glass wrapped around a curvilinear living room filled with paintings by Klee and Modigliani. The house was another masterwork by Erich Mendelsohn, architect par excellence of the Weimar Republic, who bowed at the effusion of compliments.
"So light. So free." Dietrich fingered a shimmering Brancusi statue. "So moderne!" As for the rest of the city, her face collapsed into a mask of tragedy--it stank. In the two years since she'd last been here, the great star declared, Berlin's famously invigorating Luft had got truly rotten.
"How you breathe here, I cannot understand." She flicked a gold cigarette case open, joining the others on the raw-silk couch. "Everywhere, the stench of Brownshirts. Hulking like baboons in front of the department stores. Shaking those goddamn cans at you."
"Because they're hopelessly in debt." The general across from her placed a silver monocle in his eye. Dressed even for a casual afternoon in full uniform and a chestful of bronze medals, he had, if not the wisdom, certainly the position to ascertain his facts. Kurt von Schleicher was minister of war, commander of the army, and Berlin's most infamous backstage schemer. "The Nazis," he proclaimed, "are on the verge of ruin, my dear. Financial and otherwise."
Willi's eyes glazed over.
"Just look at this month's elections," von Schleicher chuckled. " 'Hitler Over Germany,' indeed! The man flew to ten cities and lost twenty percent of his Reichstag seats."
"And still the strongest party," Fritz's ex-wife, Sylvie, dolefully reminded.
"They have reached their zenith." The general pulled off his monocle. "A year from now I assure you--you won't remember Hitler's name."
What a relief when Fritz's butler leaned over and whispered there was a call for Herr Inspektor-Detektiv.
"You may take it in the library if you would please, sir."
"Pardon me," Willi excused himself, shaking his half-dead legs.
Limping down the long, white hallway, he arrived at a glass-enclosed room that looked more like a fish tank than a library. It was Gunther calling from the Alex.
"Is she as beautiful as on screen? Sexy as Naughty Lola?"
"What are you calling about, Gunther?"
"Sorry to interrupt, Chief. But another floater's turned up. A girl this time. Out in Spandau, under the citadel."
Willi's throat constricted as he toyed with the black receiver. "All right then, I'm on my way."
"Yes, sir. I'll let them know."
"Oh, and, Gunther?"
"She is. Every goddamn inch of her. Even in men's trousers."
"I knew it! Thanks a million, Chief."
Returning the earpiece to the hook, Willi stood there. Bodies in rivers were hardly news in the chaos passing for Berlin these days. But he'd never heard of one surfacing in Old Spandau, that picture-postcard village far on the outskirts of town. A girl no less.
Back in the living room, they made a big fuss about his having to depart so abruptly. "Off to catch another fiend?" Sylvie leapt to escort him, slipping an arm through his own.
"Quite a star you've become, eh, Kraus?" Dietrich scrutinized him as she might a fine race horse. "Even in America they know of the great Detektiv who nabbed the monster Child Eater of Berlin. You ought to come to Hollywood. I bet they'd make a picture about you."
"I don't think they could find anyone quite boring enough to play me." He forced a little smile.
At this Fritz laughed much too loudly, the long, jagged dueling scar across his cheek turning bright red.
Willi took the new speedway out to Spandau. A racecourse in summer, the Avus was otherwise open to vehicular traffic and usually empty, one of the best-kept secrets in Berlin. The forest pines cast a baleful darkness as he picked up velocity. How Germans loved their forests, he thought, shifting into fourth. The deeper and darker the better. Personally he preferred the beach. Hard, bright sunshine. Open space. This road though was truly superb. A white streak through the wilderness. He was driving far faster than he should, he knew, after so much champagne. Yet the adrenaline rush was too exhilarating to forgo. This silver BMW sports coupe was the only luxury he allowed himself. He didn't collect art. Didn't travel. Didn't keep women. He was boring. The 320's six cylinders soared to 100 kph. Just boring enough to have become the most famous police inspector in Germany. The machine took the road as if it were barely moving at 110, leaving the forest pines a dim blur. What an ass Fritz could be when he was drunk. Willi floored it and rocketed past 120, seeming to hover over the highway.
Willi'd trust him with his life though.
In half an hour he was slowing to a crawl through the medieval streets of Old Spandau, one of the few parts of Berlin with real provenance. Narrow roads lined with half-timbered houses led toward the fifteenth-century citadel whose stalwart walls still rose where the River Spree joined the Havel. As he parked, he could see the sun beginning to set over the gray water. Down by the riverbank he spotted several uniformed officers in their leather-strapped greatcoats and shiny black-visored helmets.
"Inspektor," they said, parting, instantly recognizing him.
Even in the street these days people recognized him, asking for his autograph. Taking their photo with him. The Great Kinder-fresser Catcher. A mixture of awe and envy enveloped him as the cops grouped around. A lot of guys in the department didn't care for his fame. He didn't care for it either, frankly. What he cared for was being a Detektiv. Enforcing the law. Without the law, the weak were defenseless.
"Be prepared for a mess," an officer named Schmidt addressed him.
Willi'd seen more than his share of corpses in the Homicide Commission of Kripo, Berlin's Kriminal Polizei. Mutilated corpses. Decapitated corpses. Cooked-and-stuffed-into-sausages corpses. But this time his heart froze. Even in a city such as Weimar Berlin, maddened by years of war, defeat, revolution, hyper-inflation, and now the Great Depression, nearly a million unemployed, its government paralyzed, the whole place topsy-turvy with depravity ... sex maniacs, serial killers, red-and brown-shirted thugs battling for control of the streets ... a city that had reached the end, of no tomorrows, teetering on the brink ... of insanity ... civil war ... dictatorship ... something ... this was a portrait of horror.
Faceup on the water's edge, a girl was cradled like Hamlet's Ophelia in the mud and weeds. Girl. She was a beautiful young woman, maybe twenty-five. Her alabaster skin was bloated but not so much as to obliterate her features. Young. Fresh. Alive. Even in death. Her glassy eyes were wide open, warm, dark, Adriatic pools, reflecting the cold German sunset. A smile of tranquillity, triumph even, twisted across her lips. As he bent nearer, Willi sensed some long-encrusted lever in his heart shift, and he was seized by an urge to reach out and take the poor thing in his arms. Around her shoulder, like a toga, a thin, gray cotton smock half-torn away revealed her large, round breasts, the nipples already blackening. He noticed at once the dark hair was far too short ... as if her head had been clean-shaven not long ago.
What really got him though, like a hammer blow, were the legs. Stretched out before her as if she were napping, they seemed almost supernaturally misshapen. He crouched toward the orange glare of the water, holding his breath against her stench. The feet were normal, but from the knees down all the way to the ankles, the bone structure appeared ... backward. As if someone had taken giant pliers and turned the fibula around.
"Like a mermaid, eh?" Schmidt smirked.
"That's what we've been calling her, sir." Another cop made it clear the joke was not Schmidt's. "Fr?ulein Wassernixe."
"Never mind that. Has the pathologist been sent for?"
"Jawohl, Herr Inspektor-Detektiv." Schmidt saluted. "He should be here momentarily."
"I've never seen anything like it," Dr. Ernst Hoffnung declared minutes later, after Schmidt and the others had lifted the poor girl onto the back of the ambulance.
Willi watched the senior pathologist give the body a quick going over.
"Suture marks," Hoffnung said with certainty. "Somebody's tampered with these legs. It's extraordinary. From the feel of it ... well, I don't even want to say. I'll have to open them up and look." Hoffnung's gloved fingers pressed and poked the entire length of the corpse, ending with a quick tour inside the mouth. "I'm not sure yet what the cause of death is, but I can tell you this. She's almost certainly not German."
Willi had worked with Hoffnung enough times not to underestimate his talents, but this was magic. "What tips you off?"
"Wisdom teeth all removed. Not one in a thousand German girls could afford it."
"Any guesses where she's from?"
"The only place they routinely work on teeth like that is America."
Willi looked across the wide, gray expanse of water where the two rivers converged. Rain was coming in from the west, making a silvery sheet as it moved across the dense network of islands and inlets on the opposite shore. Somewhere out there, he ruminated, feeling a dozen eyes upon him, this girl had breathed her last.
"Who did you say called this in?" He turned to Schmidt.
"A Frau Geschlecht. Lives in that house, over there. Kroneburg Strasse seventeen."
He handed Willi a report. The handwriting was blurry. Or was it Willi's eyes?
Unable to look at it, he glanced across the street.
The house was more like a compound, several old buildings behind a high, white wall. Squinting he could just make out a sign above the doorway: INSTITUTE FOR MODERN LIVING. A sudden pounding filled his skull. Thunder. The first drops of rain. Checking his watch, he saw it was after six. At seven he had a dinner appointment he couldn't miss. He'd have to come back in the morning.
The rain caught up with him, and by the time he reached Kurf?rstendamm, the Ku-damm as natives called it--Berlin's Great White Way--his speedy little BMW was hopelessly stuck in traffic. When he was a kid, motor vehicles were a rarity even on the Ku-damm. Now, despite the traffic signals, between the autos, trucks, streetcars, motorbikes, and double-decker buses, it was faster to walk than drive the grand boulevard. On the buildings all the plaster decorations, the scrolls and shells and roses of the past, had been stripped away for streamlined glass and steel. A thousand neon advertisements flashed from the sleek fa?ades, their blues and reds blurring in the rain, bleeding across puddles, mesmerizing him as he inched past sidewalks thronged with people pouring from movie palaces, overflowing caf?s, eddying around blazing department-store windows. Crowds. Neon. Noise. Berlin carried on. Despite all reason.
His throat never failed to tighten up when he passed Joachimstaler Platz, where Vicki had been killed. A truck jumped the curb one morning and crashed into the caf? window where she'd been sitting. Glass slashed her carotid artery. Two years and the pain had just slightly eased. Only the thought of Stefan and Erich a few blocks farther cheered him on.
He was a good half an hour late when he entered Caf? Strauss, a colossal affair on Tauentzien Strasse with seemingly hundreds of white-gloved waiters. Even across the crowded dining hall, though, the boys spotted him and began shouting, "Vati! Vati! Over here!" Willi could see their maternal grandmother, Frau Gottman, in her black hat and fur-trimmed suit, frowning at them for such a display, drawing attention to themselves like pygmies. And then at him ... for being late. Stefan, eight, and Erich, ten, however, never ones to be stifled by etiquette, jumped from their chairs, napkins still tucked to their collars, and flung themselves into his arms.
After Vicki had died, he and the Gottmans had agreed it was probably healthier if the boys came to Dahlem to stay with them. They had a big villa with a large garden, and Vicki's younger sister, Ava, could care for them while completing university. Miraculously, the arrangement had worked. The boys were thriving. And the miracle worker was Ava. How she gleamed at the boys' happiness, Willi saw as he hugged them. He had always thought she looked like Vicki, if a slightly more down-to-earth version. But her love of the children made her appear even more similar.
As Willi sat between the boys, their little arms hooked through his own, Frau Gottman adjusted her black feathered hat. A great beauty, once an actress on the Viennese stage, she possessed a skilled repertoire of subtle emotive abilities. "You knew of course dinner was for seven." Guilt being one of her best.
Generally Sunday dinner was at their house, and every once in a while he was late. Okay. It was a far drive from town. They forgave him. But today the Gottmans had taken the boys into town, to see the Ishtar Gate. Ergo, no reasonable reason to Frau Gottman for Willi's tardiness, since he lived a few minutes' walk from the restaurant.
"If you must know," he said with greater terseness than he intended, "it was police work. A young lady's body in the Havel."
His mother-in-law's eyes widened. That he could say such a thing in front of the children! But his children weren't the ones disturbed by his work, Willi knew. When she started fiddling with her pearls, he reached across the table and squeezed her hand, earning a slight smile. They'd both lost Vicki, after all. And they both lived in a Germany growing worse by the week for people like them.