Grossman returns with a prequel to his horrifying The Sleepwalkers, which I’ve reviewed earlier. In Children of Wrath, the respected Berlin homicide detective and decorated WWI veteran Willi Kraus is just starting to feel the effects of the rising tide of anti-Semitism. It is 1929, and Hitler is still largely viewed as a vulgar upstart by the self-absorbed political aristocracy, but his power is nonetheless growing as the Great Depression begins to ravage the war-weary German economy. The Kripo, the bureau of criminal investigation where Krauss works as the only Jewish detective, is increasingly rife with anti-Semitism and Krauss is forced to walk on eggshells both at work, where his colleagues want him out of the way, and at home, where his wife wants him out of harm’s way.
It is in these volatile times that bags of the gnawed bones of dozens of children begin to surface in the Berlin sewage system. Kraus, father of two boys, is determined to solve the terrible mystery of what the press has dubbed the Kinderfresser, or Child-Eater, but he is prevented from taking the case by superiors who want to keep the Jewish Krauss out of the limelight. Instead he is given charge of a case involving tainted sausages which have sickened scores of Berliners. Of course, Krauss refuses to abandon his pursuit of the serial child killer, and knowing the author’s penchant for horror, it is pretty clear that the two cases are going to merge at some point. His investigation of the political corruption and personal psychosis linking the two cases brought to my mind Dante’s descent into the Inferno, with all the horror that implies.
Grossman’s gruesome plots are hard to stomach, but appear to presage the Holocaust to come. His character of Krauss is a strange mixture of smart yet naïve, a driven man who nonetheless wears a certain innocence along with his badge. Where Grossman absolutely excels is in evoking the unique period of Germany between the two world wars: the desperation of a broken people, the giddy decadence of its upper classes, the insidious rise of the Nazi Party on the coat tails of the Great Depression, and the ultimate surrender of the German people to Hitler’s insanity. Grossman’s mysteries, all set against the unique background of the Nazi rise to power, are not fun reads but do help to explain the why.