Monday, January 21, 2019

The Girl from Berlin by Ronald H. Balson

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 The Girl from Berlin, Balson introduces the modern story of PI Liam's and lawyer Catherine's response to plea for help from the owner of their favorite Italian restaurant.  Tony's beloved Aunt Gabi is being threatened with eviction from her picturesque villa in Tuscany by the crooked, moneygrubbing VinCo.  It looks like hope is all but lost for Gabi whose deed to the land has been declared invalid, even after having two separate lawyers contest the case.  Without the help of our would-be heroes, Gabi will be forced to vacate the land, leaving her precious award-winning vineyard in the hands of shady VinCo.

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.


  1. This sounds like a good read.I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on the previous books in the series.

  2. I had no idea this is part of a series. I don't have a rule about series so I can dive into this one without guilt.

  3. The only time I've ever started a series with anything other than the first book is on accident! LOL. Never start in the middle is one of my hard and fast rules as well. This series does sound intriguing, though. I might have to check it out -- with book one, of course!

  4. I've accidentally started reading a book from the middle of the series before I was on chapter two and I couldn't figure out what was wrong with me, why some parts of the story seemed to not be that clear. I'm still not sure how I managed to buy the wrong book without realizing it.