Paul Grossman's "Children of Wrath" is set in Berlin between the two World Wars. From 1914-1924, Germany was devastated by hyperinflation and fiscal chaos. Afterwards, an interval of prosperity ensued. No one expected the disastrous economic downturn that would send Germany into a tailspin and help set the stage for the rise of National Socialism. The protagonist, thirty-four year old Sergeant-Detektiv Willi Kraus of the Berlin Kriminal Polizei, has a great deal on his mind. Although he is a decorated combat veteran and a skilled policeman, he has to cope with his colleagues' anti-Semitic slurs. In addition, the normally unflappable Kraus is shocked when a sewer backup at the bottom of a construction pit reveals "a real horror show": a burlap sack containing children's bones fashioned into grisly jewelry. Who would abduct and kill little boys and use their body parts in this macabre fashion? Willi is eager to capture the fiend responsible for this atrocity and bring him to justice.
The first half of the novel is promising. Grossman sets the stage expertly, revealing the ugliness and depravity of a city considered to be one of Europe's cultural capitals. While the upper classes dress in fine clothing, stay in grand hotels, and eat in trendy restaurant, homeless children roam the streets, desperate for a bite to eat. There is some fine descriptive writing, an insightful analysis of how and why the citizenry put their faith in Hitler, and a ghoulish criminal conspiracy. A recurring theme of animals being herded to the slaughter is a metaphor for the men, women, and children who would, in the future, be transported in cattle cars to concentration camps. The monstrous crimes committed in these pages are a fitting prelude to the collective madness that will engulf Germany.
Willi is kindhearted, compassionate, and clever. However, is he cunning enough to apprehend a killer without endangering himself and his family? In the final stages of the narrative, the author pulls out all the stops, presenting several psychotic villains who attack Willi and his associates. If Grossman had not concluded "Children of Wrath" so melodramatically, this could have been an outstanding historical thriller.