Remember that one time I compromised all my bookish rules and principles and started reading a series at book 5 instead of book 1? No? Okay, that's probably because this is the first time I've ever really done it. However, when a review copy offer came through for a copy of The Girl from Berlin, the fifth installment of Ronald Balson's Liam Taggart and Catherine Lockhart series of mysteries, I couldn't resist. While I'm not a big mystery reader anymore, I generally can't resist the siren call of a World War II/Holocaust story, so I think Balson's probably got my number with these.
In an effort to support her case for ownership of the land, Gabi presents Catherine and Liam the memoir of the mysterious Ada Baumgarten. Ada, the daughter of famed Berlin Philharmonic concert master Jacob Baumgarten, is an unusually talented violinist growing up in Berlin, performing with the philharmonic's junior orchestra. Unfortunately, Ada's family is Jewish, and the unimaginable is unfolding in Berlin as the Nazis rise to power. Even as her prodigious talents attract the attention of even the Nazi elites, Berlin grows more dangerous by the day. Ultimately, to save her life and while allowing her to pursue her career, Maestro Wilhelm Furtwangler arranges a dream opportunity for Ada to play with the Bologna State Opera orchestra, an orchestra that traditionally allows no women. Ada's talent opens the way for her to perform all over Italy, but the specter of the Nazis grows ever closer until inevitable tragedy strikes.
Ada's story is fascinating, giving readers a glimpse of living and working in wartime Italy and Germany. I found the descriptions of the music, and Ada's ascent to fame as a female violinist at a time when most orchestras didn't allow female musicians to be particularly compelling. That said, the more historical portions of Ada's memoir suffer from a serious info dumping problem where the narration seems less like the memoir of a young woman and more like a direct copy of a modern encyclopedia. The mystery plays a clear second fiddle to Ada's story, as Liam, Catherine and friends ploddingly "hurry" to connect the dots and save Gabi's land in between eating Italian food, getting into fisticuffs with VinCo's slimy attorney, and "Oh, right, we were looking for the deed to Gabi's land, weren't we?"
While the interweaving of the two plots could probably have been handled a bit more artfully, Balson does deliver an interesting and satisfying historical mystery with a more complicated resolution than I was expecting. Despite the encyclopedia moments, Balson does a lot of things right in Ada's historical story, including drawing a realistic depiction of that era's musical scene and even portraying the character of Wilhelm Furtwangler, a true historical figure who staunchly refused to let the Nazis' hateful race policies compromise the artistic integrity of his orchestra, using his talent and what power he could to stand up for Jewish musicians in Germany's darkest days. Ultimately, I'll be looking forward to getting back to those other 4 volumes of this series.
Disclaimer: my copy provided for free in exchange for review consideration.