Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Louise Brooks and Volker Kutscher’s Babylon Berlin (the book and the TV series)

Volker Kutscher’s bestselling work of crime fiction, Babylon Berlin, has just been published in the United States by Picador. The book was an instant hit in Germany. Part of a mutli-book series, it was awarded the Berlin Krimi-Fuchs Crime Writers Prize in 2011, and has sold more than one million copies worldwide.

Its American cover (seen here) is nearly identical to the English edition: both feature an image of the iconic Louise Brooks.

This book is the basis for the popular European TV series Babylon Berlin produced by Sky TV which has just debuted yesterday in the United States on Netflix (with subtitles). Vogue magazine calls it "the most bingeable new drama since The Crown."

National Public Radio ran a good piece on the show, "Germany's 'Babylon Berlin' Crime Series Is Like 'Cabaret' On Cocaine," which concludes "Babylon Berlin captures the dark glamour of a briefly exhilarating time between the wars. And for today's Berliners — faced with the city's steady, sterile gentrification — the show offers a welcome dose of escapism." Listen to the NPR piece below:

According to the publisher, "Babylon Berlin is the first book in the international-bestselling series from Volker Kutscher that centers on Detective Gereon Rath caught up in a web of drugs, sex, political intrigue, and murder in Berlin as Germany teeters on the edge of Nazism."

And according to the sometimes reliable Kirkus Reviews, the books has been "been wildly popular in Germany ... an excellent police procedural that cleverly captures the dark and dangerous period of the Weimar Republic before it slides into the ultimate evil of Nazism." Likewise, Publishers Weekly stated, "James Ellroy fans will welcome Kutscher’s first novel and series launch, a fast-paced blend of murder and corruption sent in 1929 Berlin. Kutscher keeps the surprises coming and doesn't flinch at making his lead morally compromised." The Sunday Times (London) concurred, stating the book “Conjures up the dangerous decadence of the Weimar years, with blood on the Berlin streets and the Nazis lurking menacingly in the wings.”

Writer Paul French, who I had the pleasure of meeting a few years back when he was touring for Midnight in Peking, has written a piece on LitHub titled, "How a German Detective Series Becomes an International Hit." It sums up the phenomenon that the books and TV series has become in Europe and as it might become in America (a la Philip Kerr, Joseph Kanon and Alan Furst). Give it a read.

So, you may ask, what has all this got to do with Louise Brooks? Very little, I am afraid, except that the story begins in 1929 and the actress - an icon of Weimar German cinema through her roles in two 1929 G.W. Pabst films, Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl - adorns the cover of this bestselling book and no doubt helped propel at least a few sales. Eugene R. Richee's iconic portrait of Brooks also lends a bit of atmosphere.

And, as Paul French explains in his LitHub piece, the American publisher knew they had a good thing keeping the Brooks cover, published in Scotland by Sandstone. "It’s also a tribute to Davidson’s clever marketing that Morrison has opted to stick with the cover Sandstone commissioned from Brighton-based designer Mark Swann. It’s a cover redolent of the period and the contents and has proved to be a great favorite of bookshop window decorators the length and breadth of the British Isles."

Below is a musical video derived from the television series which gives a sense of what this stylish show has to offer.

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