Why oh why isn't Ariana Franklin (aka Diana Norman) better known? Married to the celebrated British journalist and film critic Barry Norman, she produced an impressive number of highly intelligent and superbly researched historical novels, most of them thrillers, before she sadly died in 2011. I've reviewed several on here including this one and have loved them all.
The best known and most recent were set in the early middle ages, perhaps the period she knew and loved best. But City of Shadows (2006), which I'd never even heard of before I got it for my birthday a week or so ago, takes place in Berlin in the 1920s and 30s. This is a most intriguing story, mixing fact and fiction in a seamless way and having the most unexpected twist at the end - I certainly didn't see it coming and had to go back to the beginning to see if I could see it prepared for in any way.
Franklin invariably creates strong, feisty, outspoken female protagonists, and Esther Solomonova is certainly one of them. In her early twenties when the book begins, she is working as a secretary to the Russian Prince Nick, a supposed (but actually fake) aristocrat who runs a chain of nightclubs. He values her for her skill in languages -- several including her native Russian), her intelligence, and the fact that he can sleep with her from time to time. Esther disapproves of him but is fond of him -- however, her loyalty is considerably stretched when he tells her they are going to rescue a young woman from an asylum and hope to pass her off as the Grand Duchess Anastasia, who supposedly escaped from the slaughter of her family at Ekaterinberg a few years earlier.
Despite her misgivings, Esther takes pity on the girl, and soon they are living in a respectable flat, provided by Nick, and accompanied by Natalya, a stripper whose parents used to work for the family of the Tzar. Their job is to coach Anna, as she now gets called, so that she can be formally accepted by the remaining members of her family.
You see where the fact and fiction comes in. Yes, Anna Anderson was in an asylum, she did claim to be Anastasia, but Esther, Nick, the detective Schmidt who becomes Esther's lover, and all the dreadful thugs and crooks who are trying to murder Anna are presumably figments of Franklin's imagination. Later in the book, which has moved forward to 1933 and beyond, Hitler puts in an appearance as do many of the well-known figures who surrounded him.
This is a thriller, and a very exciting one, but it is also full of fascinating and clearly accurate historical background on Berlin, as it moved from the terrible poverty and inflation after the First World War to prosperity and Fascism under the rulership of Hitler. Some of this I already knew, some was new to me -- in particular I learned a great deal about the appalling treatment of the Jews under the Romanovs which highlights the tragedy that they moved from that country to Germany with even worse results. So it's a thoughtful, and thought-provoking novel -- I won't forget Esther in a hurry, or indeed Anna Anderson, who we only ever see through Esther's eyes, though by the end we have learned a lot about her (partly fictional) origins. She is a figure who has fascinated people since she first appeared in 1922, and here we have a new view of her, and one which I found entirely convincing.
City of Shadows is out of print (publishers, are you listening?) but there are plenty of copies to be had on AbeBooks. Great stuff.