by Ben Fergusson
Berlin, 1946: a devastated city crawling with half-starved inhabitants, struggling to live on meagre rations and the black market; where everyone is trying to achieve normality amidst total destruction, total brutality. Everyone has needs and most have something to sell. The young and attractive have their bodies, of course. Others barter what little they have; mostly grave goods – a watch, a ring, a pair of shoes, a tin of ham, some old boot polish. A lucky few have the most valuable commodity of all: information.
When we first meet him, Kasper Meier seems a ruthless black market dealer with all manner of desirable commodities squirrelled away in his one-room home. Who knows how he came by them, he never tells; in Kasper’s world, information is too valuable to give away for free. Unfortunately for Kasper, he knows things that are very valuable to other black marketeers – and a dangerous, blackmailable past that catches up with him in the form of Frau Beckmann and her poisonous children; black market dealers far more ruthless than Kasper, and much more dangerous. For Kasper is not at all the cold, hard, pitiless creature he plays for his trader audience; that’s just a mask he puts on, armour against the everyday terrors of life in occupied, hungry, desperate Berlin. Inside, he is a sentimental, decent soul; kinder than he wants to believe, better than he thinks; tormented with guilt about his actions, regrets about his past. Kasper is quietly extraordinary: a brave and noble soul who has somehow held on to his humanity through two wars, disability, the Nazis, the death of his wife and child and the murder of his one true love.
On the surface, The Spring of Kasper Meier is a clever, well-schemed thriller about blackmail, murder and revenge, with a clever twist. Underneath the suspenseful veneer is the deeply touching story of a soft-hearted, half-broken man who wants to do good: care for his elderly father, defend old friends who escaped, or survived, the death camps; protect a vulnerable, damaged young girl from Frau Beckmann – and herself. A story of relationships: war-damaged friendships; family bonds mutilated by politics, war and the fight to survive; the grief of survivors who felt they could have done more to save their lost loved ones. Love lies over all, like the dust that coats the women who work the rubble: tainted love bought by lonely soldiers from desperate German girls; unwanted love; unrequited love; lost love; gay love – a dangerous pursuit in Nazi Germany, and still illegal under the Occupation.
This is a gripping, twisting thriller, an atmospheric mystery built from wonderfully real characters and about the best crafted, living, breathing world I’ve read in a historical novel. A tender, beautiful story: poignant, heart-warming, heartbreaking. I cried more than once, and I’m a hard-hearted reader; it takes a lot for a book to do that to me.
If you loved The Spring of Kasper Meier as much as I did, you might like to know Ben Fergusson has written an e-book prequel, Kasper Meier: The Planes at Berlin-Tempelhof, free via his website, or from Amazon (click on the image)