A Tale of Two Women in 1930s Berlin

Black Roses by Jane Thynne

thynne-black-rosesRemembering Jane Thynne’s columns and reviews in the Daily Telegraph, and having read that she is married to thriller writer Philip Kerr, I had high hopes of her new novel, set in Berlin during the years preceding WWII. I wasn’t disappointed, for Black Roses is a brilliant historical thriller based on real events with two strong female characters at its core.

One is Clara Vine, an aspiring actress of Anglo-German descent. Her father is a right-wing British politician who has no time for his daughter.  So Clara leaves London for Berlin, after a chance meeting in which she was assured there’ll be a part for her in a new film called Black Roses being made at the world-famous Ufa studios, where Leni Riefenstahl is queen.

The other woman … is Magda Goebbels, the most infamous woman of the Third Reich, and one of those people who once encountered is never forgotten. Some years ago, I remember watching the film Downfall, a German film that tells the story of Hitler’s last months. It was late at night and I was on my own, totally riveted by the movie, and when it got to the scene where they’re all in the bunker and Magda Goebbels coolly murders all six of her children with cyanide pills, I dissolved into a sobbing heap of tears.  Any novel that could bring her to life would be a must-read book for me.

Back to Berlin, Clara settles in, but is disappointed to find that there is no sign of that film part for her. She makes friends with a German actress Helga, who takes her to a political soirée and introduces her to the new aides to Doktor Goebbels. Sturmhauptführer Müller is tall, handsome, and instantly taken with Clara, especially once he learns who her father is.  However, she can’t keep his attention:

Suddenly Müller rose to his feet. Craning behind her, Clara was aware of a tall woman approaching them, her heels clicking on the black and white marble floor. She wore a Schiaparelli evening gown in ivory, which flattered her creamy skin, and pearls the size of little birds’ eggs hung round her neck. Her platinum hair was waved tightly around her face and a gust of perfume attended her. The flesh of her arms had the dense solidity of a Greek statue, and her eyes had a statue’s veiled, impenetrable stare.
‘Herr Doktor Müller! Just who I wanted to see!’
‘Müller clicked his heels. ‘Frau Doktor Goebbels. How are you?’
She had a deep, fluting voice, a little clipped. ‘Good, thank you, though a little tired with the move.’
‘I heard. Is the new house to your liking?’
She sighed. ‘The apartment was becoming too cramped. I liked it, but Joseph wanted something that fit better with his official duties.’
Müller gestured towards Clara. ‘This is Clara Vine. She’s the daughter of Sir Ronald Vine, the English politican.’
The woman seemed to notice Clara for the first time and looked at her curiously.

Clara is invited to Magda’s cocktail party the following night, and thus begins their curious relationship. Clara finds herself adopted by Magda, and is persuaded to become a model for a pet project of Hitler’s, the Deutsches Modeamt, of which Magda is president.  It’s a state fashion bureau to encourage German women to dress like traditional German women in German-manufactured clothes replacing the bourgeois French fashion. All the top Nazi WAGs are involved including Annelies Von Ribbentop and Goering’s girlfriend. Clara is a quietly assertive and discreet girl, and the Nazis all begin to take her into their confidences.

Enter Leo Quinn, a junior diplomat at the British embassy, who works undercover for British intelligence.  Meeting Clara at a function, he is keen to recruit her to report back on the Nazi wives … and Müller who is becoming persistent in his attention.  Clara agrees to help Leo, and he starts to teach her some spycraft, but they didn’t reckon on falling in love.  Clara is torn between love and duty, but bravely carries on.  Magda talks candidly:

‘The thing is, my dear, it’s hard to understand, but if we let them, the Jews and the Communists would take everything. It’s their way. Look what the Bolsheviks did to the Russian royal family. I don’t think I’ll ever  forget the newspaper picture, when all those children of the royal family were murdered. Murdered in cold blood. All those little faces lined up. What kind of person could do that? Those poor children. Images like that never leave your mind.’

That quote above got me as you can imagine.  Magda is obviously very unhappy, hiding it behind an icy exterior that rarely melts. I hate to sound the slightest bit sympathetic towards this modern Medea, but having discovered snippets of her life pre-Goebbels, I am beginning to understand just a little of the pressure that made her that way.  I am keen to read more about her, and now have a copy of Anna Klabunde’s biography of her on my shelves, and I have a copy of Meike Ziervogel’s  new novelisation of her life on order.

This novel gives a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these women. They were used to being clothes-horses for haute-couture, but were now being urged to be models for the new regime. Magda is totally staunch in her support for Hitler, (who had been the witness at her wedding to Joseph).

Being a fan of spy novels, I enjoyed the espionage aspects of this novel hugely.  For a fledgling spy, Clara has to take some big risks and I had my fingers crossed for her.  Leo is intriguing.  As a spook, he has a major flaw in falling for his agent, although that sort of thing surely did happen.  His relationship with his boss and quiet diplomatic presence give a nod to Le Carré’s George Smiley and Control.

I did wonder how the novel was going to finish – whether there would be a tragic end for Clara.  I loved the combination of the womens’ story and spying, finding that the jeopardy really added another level of enjoyment. I hesitate to let the cat out of the bag, but Thynne has made no secret that Black Roses is the first of a trilogy featuring Clara Vine.  Hurrah!  I loved this book and look forward to lots more espionage in The Winter Garden (to be published in 2014). (9/10)

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Source: publisher – thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Black Rosesby Jane Thynne. Simon & Schuster hardback, pub 28 March 2013. 480 pages.
Magda Goebbels by Anja Klabunde
Magdaby Meike Ziervogel, pub April.
Downfall (2 Disc Edition) [DVD] [2005]

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