Summer, 1928. Berlin, a city where nothing is verboten. In the night streets, political gangs wander, looking for fights. Daylight reveals a beleaguered populace barely recovering from the postwar inflation, often jobless, reeling from the reparations imposed by the victors. At central police HQ, the Murder Commission has its hands full. A killer is on the loose, and though he scatters many clues, each is a dead end. It's almost as if he is taunting the cops. Meanwhile, the press is having a field day.
This is what Bernie Gunther finds on his first day with the Murder Commisson. He's been taken on beacuse the people at the top have noticed himthey think he has the makings of a first-rate detective. But not just yet. Right now, he has to listen and learn.
Metropolis is a tour of a city in chaos: of its seedy sideshows and sex clubs, of the underground gangs that run its rackets, and its bewildered citizensthe lost, the homeless, the abandoned. It is Berlin as it edges toward the new world order that Hitler will soo usher in. And Bernie? He's a quick study and he's learning a lot. Including, to his chagrin, that when push comes to shove, he isn't much better than the gangsters in doing whatever her must to get what he wants.
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Five days after the federal general election, Bernhard Weiss, Berlin's chief of the Criminal Police, summoned me to a meeting in his sixth-floor office at the Alex. Wreathed in the smoke from one of his favorite Black Wisdom cigars and seated at the conference table alongside Ernst Gennat, one of his best homicide detectives, he invited me to sit down. Weiss was forty-eight years old and a Berliner, small, slim, and dapper, academic even, with round glasses and a neat, well-trimmed mustache. He was also a lawyer and a Jew, which made him unpopular with many of our colleagues, and he'd overcome a great deal of prejudice to get where he was: in peacetime, Jews had been forbidden to become officers in the Prussian Army; but when war broke out, Weiss applied to join the Royal Bavarian Army, where he quickly rose to the rank of captain and won an Iron Cross. After the war, at the request of the Ministry of the Interior, he'd reformed the Berlin police and made it one of the most modern forces in Europe. Still, it had to be said, he made an unlikely-looking policeman; he always reminded me a little of Toulouse-Lautrec.
There was a file open in front of him and from the look of it, the subject was me.
"You've been doing a good job in Vice," he said in his plummy, almost thespian voice. "Although I fear you're fighting a losing battle against prostitution in this city. All these war widows and Russian refugees make a living as best they can. I keep telling our leaders that if we did more to support equal pay for women we could solve the problem of prostitution in Berlin overnight.
"But that's not why you're here. I expect you've heard: Heinrich Lindner has left the force to become an air traffic controller at Tempelhof, which leaves a spare seat in the murder wagon."
"Do you know why he left?"
I did know, but hardly wanting to say, I found myself pulling a face.
"You can say. I shan't be in the least offended."
"I'd heard it said he didn't like taking orders from a Jew, sir."
"That's correct, Gunther. He didn't like taking orders from a Jew." Weiss drew on his cigar. "What about you? Do you have any problems taking orders from a Jew?"
"Or in taking orders from anyone else, for that matter."
"No, sir. I have no problem with authority."
"I'm delighted to hear it. Because we're thinking of offering you a permanent seat in the wagon. Lindner's seat."
"You sound surprised."
"Only that it's the splash around the Alex that Inspector Reichenbach was going to get the seat."
"Not unless you turn it down. And even then I have my doubts about that man. Of course, people will say I don't dare offer the seat to another Jew. But that's not it at all. In our opinion you've the makings of a fine detective, Gunther. You are diligent and you know when to keep your mouth shut; that's good in a detective. Very good. Kurt Reichenbach is a good detective, too, but he's rather free with his fists. When he was still in uniform, some of his brother police officers nicknamed him Siegfried, on account of the fact that he was much too fond of wielding his sword. Of hitting some of our customers with the handle or the flat of the blade. I don't mind what an officer does in the name of self-defense. But I won't have a police officer cracking heads open for the pleasure of it. No matter whose head it is."
"And he hasn't stopped for the lack of a sword," said Gennat. "More recently there was a rumor he beat up an SA man he'd arrested in Lichtenrade, a Nazi who'd stabbed a communist. Nothing was proven. He might be popular around the Alex-even some of the anti-Semites seem to like him-but he's got a temper."
"Precisely. I'm not saying he's a bad policeman. Just that we think we prefer you to him." Weiss looked down at the page in my file. "I see you made your Abitur. But no university."
"The war. I volunteered."
"So then. You want the seat? It's yours if you do."
"Yes, sir. Very much."
"You've been attached to the Murder Commission before, of course. So you've already worked a murder, haven't you? Last year. In Schšneberg, wasn't it? As you know, I like all my detectives to have had the experience of working a homicide alongside a top man like Gennat here."
"Which makes me wonder why you think I'm worth the permanent seat," I said. "That case-the Frieda Ahrendt case-has gone cold."
"Most cases go cold for a while," said Gennat. "And it's not just cases that go cold, it's detectives, too. Especially in this city. Never forget that. It's just the nature of the job. New thinking is the key to solving cold cases. As a matter of fact, I've got some other cases you can check out if you ever get such a thing as a quiet moment. Cold cases are what can make a detective's reputation."
"Frieda Ahrendt," said Weiss. "Remind me of that one."
"A dog found some body parts wrapped in brown paper and buried in the GrŸnewald," I said. "And it was Hans Schnieckert and the boys in Division J who first identified her. On account of the fact that the killer was thoughtful enough to leave us her hands. The dead girl's fingerprints revealed she had a record for petty theft. You would think that might have opened a lot of doors. But we've found no family, no job, not even a last-known address. And because a newspaper was foolish enough to put up a substantial reward for information, we wasted a lot of time interviewing members of the public who were more interested in making a thousand reichsmarks than in helping the police. At least four women told us their husbands were the culprit. One of them even suggested her husband was originally going to cook the body parts. Thus the newspaper epithet: the GrŸnewald Pork Butcher."
"That's one way to get rid of your old man," said Gennat. "Put him up for a murder. Cheaper than getting a divorce."
After Bernhard Weiss, Ernst Gennat was the most senior detective in the Alex; he was also the largest, nicknamed the Big Buddha; it was a tight fit in the station wagon with Gennat on board. Weiss himself had designed the murder wagon. It was equipped with a radio, a small fold-down desk with a typewriter, a medical kit, lots of photographic equipment, and almost everything needed to investigate a homicide except a prayer book and a crystal ball. Gennat had a mordant Berlin wit, the result, he said, of having been born and brought up in the staff quarters at Berlin's Plštzensee Prison, where his father had been the assistant governor. It was even rumored that on execution days Gennat had breakfasted with the headsman. Early in my days at the Alex, I'd decided to study the man and make him my model.
The telephone rang and Weiss answered it.
"You're SPD, right, Gunther?" Gennat asked.
"Because we don't need any politics in the wagon. Communists, Nazism, I get enough of that at home. And you're single, right?"
"Good. Because this job ruins a marriage. You might look at me and think, not unreasonably, that I'm very popular with the ladies. But only until I get a case that keeps me here at the Alex day and night. I'll need to find a nice lady copper if ever I'm going to get married. So where do you live?"
"I rent a room in a boardinghouse on Nollendorfplatz."
"This job means a bit more money and a promotion and maybe a better room. In that order. And you'll be on probation for a month or two. Does this house you live in have a telephone?"
"Ever try them?"
"Bit of cocaine once. To see what all the fuss was about. Not for me. Besides, I couldn't afford it."
"No harm in that, I suppose," said Gennat. "There's still a lot of pain relief this country needs after the war."
"A lot of people aren't taking it for pain relief," I said. "Which sometimes leaves them with a very different kind of crisis."
"There are some people who think the Berlin police are in crisis," said Gennat. "Who think the whole city is in crisis. What do you think, lad?"
"The larger the city, the more crises there are likely to be. I think we're always going to be facing a crisis of one kind or another. Might as well get used to that. It's indecision that's more likely to cause us crises. Governments that can't get anything done. With no clear majority, I'm not sure this new one will be any different. Right now our biggest problem looks like democracy itself. What use is it when it can't deliver a viable government? It's the paradox of our times and sometimes I worry that we will get tired of it before it can sort itself out."
He nodded, seeming to agree with me, and moved on to another issue.
"Some politicians don't think much of our clear-up rate. What do you say to that, lad?"
"They should come and meet some of our clients. Maybe if the dead were a bit more talkative they'd have a fair point."
"It's our job to hear them all the same," said Gennat. He shifted his enormous bulk for a moment and then stood up. It was like watching a zeppelin get airborne. The floor creaked as he walked to the corner turret window. "If you listen closely enough you can still hear them whisper. Like these Winnetou murders. I figure his victims are talking to us, but we just haven't understood what language they're speaking." He pointed out the window at the metropolis. "But someone does. Someone down there, perhaps coming out of Hermann Tietz. Maybe Winnetou himself."
Weiss finished his telephone call and Gennat came back to the meeting table, where he lit his own pungent cigar. By now there was quite a cloudscape drifting across the table. It reminded me of gas drifting across no-man's-land.
I was too nervous to light a cigarette myself. Too nervous and too respectful of my seniors; I was still in awe of them and amazed that they wanted me to be part of their team.
"That was the ViPoPra," said Weiss.
The ViPoPra was the police president of Berlin, Karl Zšrgiebel.
"It seems that the Wolfmium light-bulb factory in Stralau just blew up. First reports say there are many dead. Perhaps as many as thirty. He'll keep us posted.
"I would remind you that we are agreed not to use the name Winnetou when we're referring to our scalping murderer. I think it does those poor dead girls a grave disservice to use these sensationalized names. Let's stick to the file name, shall we, Ernst? Silesian Station. Better for security that way."
"Sorry, sir. Won't happen again."
"So welcome to the Murder Commission, Gunther. The rest of your life just changed forever. You'll never look at people in the same way again. From now on, whenever you stand next to a man at a bus stop or on a train, you'll be sizing him up as a potential killer. And you'd be right to do so. Statistics show that most murders in Berlin are committed by ordinary, law-abiding citizens. In short, people like you and me. Isn't that right, Ernst?"
"Yes, sir. It's rare I ever meet a murderer who looks like one."
"You'll see things every bit as bad as the things you saw in the trenches," he added. "Except that some of the victims will be women and children. But we have to be hard. And you'll find we tend to make jokes most people wouldn't find funny."
"What do you know about these Silesian Station killings, Gunther?"
"Four local prostitutes murdered in as many weeks. Always at night. The first one near Silesian Station. All of them hit over the head with a ball-peen hammer and then scalped with a very sharp knife. As if by the eponymous Red Indian from Karl May's famous novels."
"Which you've read, I trust."
"Show me a German who hasn't and I'll show you a man who can't read."
"Well, it's been a few years-but yes."
"Good. I couldn't like a man who didn't like a good western by Karl May. What else do you know? About the murders, I mean."
"Not much." I shook my head. "Chances are the killer didn't know the victims, which makes him hard to catch. It may be the instinct of the moment that drives his actions."
"Yes, yes," said Weiss, as if he'd heard all this before.
"The killings do seem to be having an effect on the number of girls on the streets," I said. "There are fewer prostitutes about than there used to be. The ones I've spoken to tell me they're scared to work."
Weiss shot me a quizzical look. "Spit it out, man. Whatever it is. I expect all my detectives to speak frankly."
"Just that the working girls have another name for these women. Because they were scalped. When the last woman was murdered I started hearing her described as another Pixavon Queen." I paused. "Like the shampoo, sir."
"Yes, I have heard of Pixavon shampoo. As the ads would have it, a shampoo used by 'good wives and mothers.' A bit of street corner irony. Anything else?"
"Nothing really. Only what's in the newspapers. My landlady, Frau Weitendorf, has been following the case quite closely. As you might expect, given how lurid the facts are. She loves a good murder. We're all obliged to listen to her while she brings us our breakfast. Hardly the most appetizing of subjects, but there it is."
"I'm interested: What does she have to say about it?"
I paused, picturing Frau Weitendorf in her usual vocal flow, full of an almost righteous indignation and hardly seeming to care if any of her lodgers were paying attention. Large, with ill-fitting dentures, and two bulldogs that stayed close to her heels, she was one of those women who liked to talk, with or without an audience. The long-sleeved quilted peignoir she wore at breakfast made her look like a grubby Chinese emperor, an effect that was enhanced by her double chins.
Besides Weitendorf, there were four of us in the house: an Englishman called Robert Rankin who claimed to be a writer; a Bavarian Jew by the name of Fischer who said he was a traveling salesman, but was probably a crook of some kind; and a young woman named Rosa Braun who played the saxophone in a dance band but was almost certainly a half-silk. Including Frau Weitendorf, we were an unlikely quintet, but perhaps a perfect cross section of modern Berlin.