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Franklin, Ariana - 'City of Shadows'
Paperback: 320 pages (May 2006) Publisher: Penguin Canada ISBN: ISBN 9780143052043

One of the most chronicled, dissected, discussed, and disputed characters in the popular press of the last century was a young woman fished out of Berlin's Landwehr Canal in 1920 in a failed suicide attempt. She was thereafter confined in an insane asylum as 'Fraulein Unbekannt' where a fellow inmate declared that she recognized her from a newspaper photo as the Grand Duchess Tatiana, daughter of Tsar Nicholas, who, with his entire family, had been assassinated in 'The House of Special Purpose' by the Bolsheviks, fearing they would be restored to the throne should the Revolution be defeated. The identification animated the depressive Fraulein, who admitted she was not really Tatiana, but Anastasia, the youngest of the Romanov daughters. Thus began an endless and fruitless attempt to authenticate her claim, made all the more poignant by the utter impossibility of disposing of it one way or the other. So contentious is her identification that true believers still refuse to accept the DNA evidence (unavailable during Anderson's life) that pretty comprehensively put paid to any genetic connection between Anna and the Romanov line.

Only a daring novelist would hope to add anything new to this well-tilled ground, but Ariana Franklin has managed to breathe new life into the tale by placing the claimant in the care and protection of Esther Solomonova, a badly scarred young survivor of a pogrom. Esther is herself an employee of 'Prince' Nick, another Russian 'royal', who hopes to turn any number of dishonest Deutschmarks by establishing Anna as the true heir to the presumed Romanov fortune. What ought to have been a simple and sleazy scam turns sinister when it becomes clear that Anna is being stalked by a mysterious person who appears in Berlin on a regular schedule and who may well be disposing of those close to Anna by torturing them in horrific ways so they will reveal her whereabouts. Anna believes he is a Bolshevik agent; others doubt his existence altogether, but certainly rather a large number of people are turning up dead in Anna's vicinity. Franklin successfully evokes the atmosphere of Fritz Lang's Berlin (Peter Lorre even makes a cameo appearance) to add to the tension.

But even a serial killer counts for relatively little compared to the mass murderer who is about to come to power in Germany. The climax of the novel takes place as the Weimar Republic crumbles and the Nazis take over with terrifying efficiency. Curiously, it is here that the novel really falters and not merely because the importance of the serial killer plot is overwhelmed by the far greater horrors unfolding in Berlin. Franklin is unable to make the reader really care about the capture of a single killer in a world of murderers who have taken over the police and are running the state.

Though this is the first novel she has published under this name, Franklin is evidently an historical novelist of some experience. There is a commercial slickness about the book, especially in the final twist, and a superficiality in its research that prevents it from being much more than an effective entertainment. It certainly lacks the imaginative inventiveness of Robert Harris's FATHERLAND or the thoughtful re-examination of a complex political period that we have in CJ Sansom's more recent WINTER IN MADRID. But it is decidedly entertaining and in spots we can see glimmers of what it might have been had the author taken herself and her subject just a bit more seriously.

NB. CITY OF SHADOWS is also available in a UK edition.

Yvonne Klein, Canada
August 2006

last updated 13/08/2006 15:58