Franz Schmidt arrives in Berlin in January 1939 to take up the position of Chief Auditor at the Reichsbank, the financial heart of the Third Reich. He has been positioned there by the enigmatic von Streck, a high-ranking member of the Nazi party but one who has a different agenda to that of the Fuehrer. Schmidt realises he must tread very carefully to avoid the zealous and passionate Fraulein Brandt, who is determined to destroy anyone unfaithful to the Party.
Berlin in 1939 is not an easy place to be if you're not a supporter of Hitler and the Nazi Party. Being the Chief Auditor in the Reichsbank, right at the centre of the Party's finances would always be a tricky assignment, but if you're only there to try to stop the advance of the Third Reich it's an even more difficult place to be.
Franz Schmidt isn't a typical hero, he's quiet, a small self-contained man, who has drawn on incredible internal resolve in his opposition to the direction that Germany is being driven in. He has divorced his wife (a matter of self-preservation) and joined the party, and he is prepared to put himself at great personal peril in the service of the high-ranking and powerful von Streck - someone who is working from within against the Fuehrer.
In the bank there are many people who are passionate supporters of the Fuehrer and the Reich and Schmidt soon finds himself up against the formidable Fräulein Brandt, head of the Precious Metals Department, lover of a high-ranking Gestapo officer, a fanatical Nazi. He also meets and finds himself attracted to Fräulein Anna von Schnelling, a secretary within the bank who will ultimately put him at greater risk than his own mission.
THE IRON HEART is a slow burner story, the tension building as Schmidt gets himself deeper and deeper into his mission - to find the financial blueprints for the Reich. Alongside his attempts to find and photograph the plans, Berlin is in turmoil. The Gestapo are ruthless in their pursuit of Jewish citizens and anybody who is working against the Party and their methods are ruthless. People opposed to the party - trying to save individuals and get them out of the country - take extreme risks on a daily basis. A constant game of cat and mouse is played out, and Schmidt finds himself involved in events that could not only stop his mission, but result in his own arrest. Huge sacrifices are made to ensure he can remain safe.
Whilst there are a number of murders and deaths, THE IRON HEART isn't necessarily a mystery as the perpetrator of the killings is spelt out. The book is definitely more of a thriller in style, but at the same time Browne has created a very claustrophobic, dark, dangerous place in which events move swiftly, but the actions themselves are sometimes slow and very deliberate. It's a discomforting book to read, providing a very realistic feel of what it must be like to be under pressure, under threat, underwhelmed by your countries leaders, living a life that has been thrown into absolute turmoil by events outside your control, and being a reluctant, understated but very capable, non-typical hero.
THE MURDER FARM - Andrea Maria Schenkel
In a German village in the aftermath of the Second World War, Old Man Danner, his wife, their daughter, her two children and their new maid all lie dead. They have been brutally murdered with a pickaxe at their remote home, now known as 'The Murder Farm'.
THE MURDER FARM was one of the books that I purposely read as I was seeing the author at a Melbourne Writers Festival session. I actually picked it up to take on the train in with me - a journey of just on an hour in total. I can't remember the last time I was tempted to stay on the train and keep reading because a book was so good, but this book definitely tempted me to do so.
Based on true events, but with a different timeframe and a resolution (the true crime remains unsolved), THE MURDER FARM covers the brutal killing of an entire family. The family live on a small farm, on the outskirts of a small farming community, the place is quiet and enclosed and vaguely claustrophobic. The family themselves are also quiet, enclosed and vaguely claustrophobic - they are outsiders from the rest of the community. The father - Old Danner is a nasty piece of work, his wife devoutly religious and very standoffish, his daughter has a bit of a reputation. There are lots of rumours about the parentage of her son - as her husband ran off years ago.
The style of the book is unusual and it works unbelievably well. The story of the killings is slowly intertwined with "witness statements" - testimony of neighbours, workers and people in and around the area in the time leading up to the discovery of the bodies. The killer's own story is told - partly as his own testimony, partly in prayer. Time and time again, the style of the book has the author taking the reader almost to the edge - almost to the point where you can see who the killer is, and time and time again you're whipped back. Time and time again I thought I knew, but I wasn't quite sure. Ultimately, it is one of those books that has such a fabulously creepy, scarey, sobering, disquieting affect on the reader. It's voyeuristic. It's distressing that you're so close to these people. It's odd that you know that the killer must be from that quiet, claustrophobic little community - is probably one of the witnesses whose words you are reading.
When Andrea signed my copy of the book, she asked me where I was up to - I wasn't quite at the point where I knew for sure who the killer was. Her inscription was "I hope you like the killer, too." I did. I liked how the killer was revealed, and, for some strange reason in a book that absolutely enthralled, that was potentially disturbing and actually quite brutal, I liked the person as well.