Before she wrote the entertaining doorstop The Far Pavilions, M.M. Kaye had produced a series of very conventional murder mysteries set in exotic places. Death in Berlin dates from 1955 and my copy was published in 1986, after her big success. She’s a good writer in that she can get people in and out of a room, paint atmosphere, and move through a competent plot. There’s even a little bit of 1950s-style va-va-voom when the dishy detective catches our heroine in her lace-trimmed apricot-colored undies. I couldn’t help thinking that they were probably a great deal more substantial than, say, what Lady GaGa wears on stage, but the detective blushed. Or maybe he just tightened his jaw because he thought she was trying to use womanly wiles to distract him. It’s that kind of novel.
The McGuffin is a batch of diamonds that were on the way out of Germany into Holland, but got de-railed during the war. Or maybe I have that wrong. Anyway, diamonds. Suspects are eleven Brits loosely attached to the British Army in the English sector of Berlin. Lots of tea, cocktail shakers, uptight Army wives. The heroine is a fashion model back in London who chose to vacation in Berlin in March with her cousin, an Army major, and his wife. That in itself is possibly the least credible plot point in the book. There are three murders, of people you don’t care about (and one you really don’t like because the victim dyes her hair). In a va-va-voom moment the beautiful heroine is surprised by the dishy detective wearing noting but lace-trimmed apricot underthings, ridiculously scanty for the era but probably a great deal more substantial than what, say, Lady GaGa wears on stage. The detective blushes — or maybe tightens his jaw, because he thinks she is trying to use her womanly wiles to distract him. Toward the end the poor girl recovers some memories of escaping from Germany as a small child on her own, but she never presents the PTSD she is surely entitled to. Probably the detective (who looks like Alec Guinness circa 1955) will make everything all right. Actually, I shouldn’t be snide: I’ve got Kaye’s Death in Kenya, Death in Zanzibar, and Death in Kashmir on my shelf and they’re all ripe for a re-reading.