Paul Grossman’s bio on the back flap of The Sleepwalkers is careful to point out that this is his “first published novel.” One can only hope that the ones he has currently unpublished are as good as this one!
At times a police procedural, a paean to a lost society and a horror story, The Sleepwalkers takes place in the heady days of a Berlin between world wars. By turns desperate, rancorous, amorous, sophisticated, provincial, small-minded and open-armed, Berlin takes on the aspect of a decadent Rome, fiddling while burning, careening toward disaster. In the midst of this incessant swirl, the body of a young woman – horribly disfigured – drifts out of the Havel River, a look of peace and triumph on her face. Willi Kraus, decorated Jewish detective with the Kripo (Criminal Police), has barely set foot on the path to finding out everything there is to know about the woman when he is pulled away to find a missing Bulgarian princess.
It doesn’t take long, however, for Willi to find a link between the missing princess and the mysterious corpse. And each minuscule piece of the convoluted puzzle draws Willi closer into the chaotic horror of a Nazi party just beginning to flex its muscles – a Nazi party of street thugs and racist brutes. But as Willi draws closer to the terrible truth, Germany draws closer to the terrible inevitability of a Nazi seizure of power.
The premise of the book is fictional, however it does offer an intriguing what-if proposition. And it provides a glimpse into the Berlin of between the wars, which must have been by turns fascinating and revolting. Throughout one is left to wonder who the real sleepwalkers of the title are – perhaps everyone, sleepwalking towards disaster.