Review: Angel Avenger by Tim Wickenden
It is no great insight to state that all detective stories revolve around one single moral dichotomy, the contrast between guilt and innocence.
Depending on the nature of the story and, to some extent, the skill of the writer, this dichotomy may prove to be more or less complex but I’ve never read a novel in which this contrast is more contingent than in ‘Avenging Angel.’
I should say from the outset that the setting for this story is Berlin in the 1960s which naturally presents a series of morally ambiguous situations to the reader: if the whole nation is guilty, where does individual responsibility lie?
Yet this is no amorphous fog of similarity: ‘Avenging Angel’ contains several well-drawn villains, including a brief cameo of a man infuriated at having to wait whilst someone else uses a telephone kiosk which was so sharp and savage that I reached up to my bookshelf for my battered copy of Hannah Arendt to remind myself of the banality of evil.
The War, its impact on individuals and the choices they made, both at the time and fifteen years later, is as much a theme of this book as is the gripping detective story.
This is not, in any sense, a mystery: we know from very early in the story who is committing the murders, how they are committing them and why, yet there are enough turns in the plot to hold the reader’s interest as the Kriminal Polzei investigate the series of bodies discovered in woodlands around the city.
The novel has a strong sense of both time and place: Wickenden is clearly very familiar with both the geography and history of the city in which he has chosen to tell his tale. I was almost absolutely taken there, though I did spot what felt like me to me small lapses, where an anachronistic word or event seemed to break through the otherwise perfect period surface.
The use of the word ‘homophobia’ seemed a little jarring, not just because it wasn’t coined until nine years after the story is set but because the concept was not widely acknowledged.
And there were a couple of aspects of the character of the young policewoman Otti which didn’t seem quite in keeping with the era, particularly her expressing a level of sexual freedom which women did not have before the advent of the Pill.
My issue here is not that the character of Otti physically could not have acted thus (because just look at what Lady Mary gets up to in Downton) but that culturally, they would have been much more of a big deal in 1960 than in 2023.
Delineation of character is a real strength of this novel. Wickenden is interested in all the characters he portrays and every one of them has individuality.
The detective who is leading the investigation, Max Becker, is a strong protagonist and combines a traumatic past with the determination to create a good life for himself which leaves the reader thoroughly on his side. His family are tenderly drawn and contribute to his likeability.
We feel, with Max, that beyond all the loss and horrors of war, domestic happiness is possible and provides a vivid moral counterweight to the rollcall of inhumanity.
The relationships amongst the team of policemen were well-described and full of variety, though it felt there were, at times early in the book, hordes of officers.
The utility of police procedures, often disregarded by mavericks in other stories, is shown here for what they are, means of keeping officers safe.
The story unfolds through the eyes of the policemen and from another perspective, which I must be careful not to give away.
There is graphic violence in this book but it is never delivered without context nor does Wickenden shy away from the consequences of it.
And though the split narrative gives the reader two perspectives on the story arc, there are twists and turns in plenty in this absorbing story.
This was certainly a book which featured characters I was reluctant to part with and I do hope that Max and his team are soon investigating another dramatic case in post-War Berlin.
The full novel is available in eBook and Paperback here
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