Murder mystery in Munich surrounded by swirling doom

After 18 successful mysteries, 13 of which featured contemporary, California-based “Rabbi” Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, Faye Kellerman demonstrates her remarkable versatility with this newest thriller, “Straight into Darkness,” that takes place in 1929 in Munich, Germany.

The meticulous details she offers as well as her introductory acknowledgements to the authorities who cooperated with her during her data-gathering trips to Munich testify to the diligence of her background research. She brings to life a tense city where Hitler and his minions created havoc and furthered his move to power four years later.

In this city of riots and restlessness, the police struggle to maintain control. Their arduous task is made more onerous when the body of a young and pretty society woman is found in the city’s fashionable English Garden district. She turns out to be the wife a wealthy Jewish banker, as the police quickly learn.

Investigative efforts are led by Axel Berg, a homicide detective with a wife and two children, as well as a young Jewish mistress. He tries unsuccessfully to avoid the treacherous political currents that swirl about him, finding that even his own son has something good to say about the Nazis.

Much worse, Berg finds that there are a number of Hitler sympathizers among his colleagues in the police department. He resists their anti-Semitic attitudes that lead to the accusation that the dead woman’s husband committed the murder — even though there is no evidence to substantiate this view. The tragic consequences of these prejudices are fatal for the husband and land Berg in the hospital.

When more female murder victims are found, the city, already seething with Hitler’s rallies, becomes even more volatile. Not fully recovered from his injuries, Berg plunges back into his methodical efforts to find the killer. His pursuit is complicated by the questionable motives of his fellow police officers, especially his hostile superior.

Slowly and painstakingly, Berg tracks down every clue, interviewing many people who had even the remotest association with the women who were killed. As he scrupulously pursues evidence, his relationships with his family, his mistress and his colleagues are all strained. Inevitably, of course, he identifies the killer but this leads to a disastrous outcome.

Kellerman succeeds in portraying a policeman who responsibly does his job in the face an environment that is rapidly moving to the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II. She captures the mood of Munich as it embraced Hitler, his Brown Shirts and his anti-Semitism. Although not mentioned by Kellerman, the appalling attitudes in the city that she so eloquently describes made it possible for a notorious concentration camp, Dachau, to be established in the environs of Munich.

This extraordinary book combines authentic social history with a first-rate murder mystery. Kellerman’s talents are visibly on display and her many fans will forgive her for temporarily (we hope!) abandoning Pete Decker and Rina Lazarus.

“Straight into Darkness” by Faye Kellerman (432 pages, Warner Books, $25.95).