The end of the Second World War was not the end of the story – or the suffering – for survivors living in the rubble of bombed-out Berlin.
Amidst the desolate debris of shattered homes, lives and businesses, the black market thrived and desperate people begged, borrowed and stole for essentials like food and clothing.
In a city short on supplies and hope, unscrupulous wheelers and dealers plied their trade in streets controlled by occupying Allied troops from America, Britain, France and the Soviet Union.
This bleak, unrelentingly dark landscape forms the memorable backdrop to Ben Fergusson’s coruscating debut, a gripping tale of murder, betrayal, deceit and desperation written with unflinching honesty and a rare sensual grace.
It’s April 1946 and 50-year-old Kasper Meier is one of Berlin’s Mr Fix-its. He trades on the black market to feed himself and his sick, elderly father, and has gained a reputation as a man who ‘gets things for people’ – whether that’s names, addresses, cigarettes or sardines – all for the right price.
When Eva Hirsch, a tough but charming young woman who works with a rubble clearance team, arrives at Kasper’s flat seeking the whereabouts of a British pilot, he feels a reluctant sympathy for her but tells her he doesn’t ‘do military.’
But Eva, working for the mysterious Frau Beckmann, is prepared for his answer. She knows that Kasper is a covert homosexual and ‘everyone still hates queers,’ she reminds him.
Meanwhile, Allied servicemen are being found murdered across the city and as the threats against him mount, Kasper is drawn through blackmail into a world of intrigue he could never have anticipated.
Under constant surveillance, not least the terrifying, unblinking eyes of Frau Beckmann’s feral twins Hans and Lena, Kasper navigates the perilous streets and secrets of a city still reeling from the horrors of war and defeat.
As a net of lies and danger closes around him, Kasper must work out what is behind the demands being made of him and at the same time try to save himself, his father… and lovely Eva, the awkward, vulnerable girl who has become his surrogate daughter.
Tightly plotted and brimming with menace, The Spring of Kasper Meier is a superb thriller but it is also a work of immense imaginative power as Fergusson uses post-war Berlin’s sights, sounds and sweet, cloying smell of death to evoke the cruel emotional aftermath of war, a city in ruins and a people beaten, bowed and bloodied.
In Kasper Meier, we have a man for all seasons… a complex and gritty survivor with an innate sense of compassion and an appealing vulnerability who fought in one world war, endured another and has learned to keep calm and carry on.
The Beckmann twins epitomise the city’s psychologically damaged, free-range children, using their wits and a callousness born of years of brutal war and Nazi ideology to willingly destroy the lives of others.
But it is Eva – ‘a girl that war had made adult’ – who is the making of Kasper, inspiring his affection, secret admiration and latent and protective paternal feelings.
Surprising and touching, haunting and revealing, this is a remarkable first novel.
(Abacus, paperback, £7.99)