“A powerful debut full of fear, suspense, violence and geopolitical machinations. The tale thickens and twists, plunging us into a labyrinth of high-stakes intrigue involving the Gestapo and British spy agencies. Michael Smith explores turf reminiscent of the historical fiction of Alan Furst and Joseph Kanon. He writes with the detail, precision and sophistication you’d expect from a veteran of British military intelligence.”
—Sebastian Rotella, author of Rip Crew
Monday 9th November 1942
The beams from the patrol car’s headlights threw long shadows out over the icy river. The light flickered across a scattering of the fresh, powdery snow that had been falling off and on for a couple of hours. But there was only mud on the dead man’s clothes. The body lay sprawled in a shallow ditch beside the Adolf-Hitler-Strasse, several metres in front of the bridge. The heels of the shoes and the turn-ups of the trousers were covered in mud. Whoever he was, he’d been dragged somewhere. Ritter knelt down beside the body and felt the skin on the neck, trying to work out how long it had been there.
‘Wherever he was strangled, it definitely wasn’t here. The body’s stone cold but there’s no snow on it at all.’
Ritter turned back the front of the dead man’s raincoat and worked his way through his pockets. Nothing. Not even a few coins. A gust of freezing wind blew up from the river, bringing with it the stench of rotting fish. He grimaced, braced his face from the wind and stood up, staring down at the body, trying to imagine the dead man alive. What sort of man was this? What had he been doing in Rosenheim? And more importantly, what had he been doing to get himself killed? The back of the jacket collar was frayed at the crease. The dark hair was tinged with a few streaks of grey and the face had the tired look of someone for whom life had thrown up one challenge too many. But there was an undeniable toughness there. It was a good case for the new trainee from Munich to cut his teeth on.
‘You’d think twice before picking a fight with this one anywhere, wouldn’t you, Messel, let alone here by the bridge?’ Ritter pivoted his body at the waist as if preparing to throw a punch. Could you have caught this guy out that easily? No. Definitely not. ‘He’s got too much room to avoid you and come back at you. You’d want a gun in your hand if you were going to take him on, and he certainly wasn’t shot. See the bruising around the neck. This one was strangled.’
Ritter turned the lower half of the man’s body on its side. Strangulation victims emptied their bowels. But there was no stench, no sign of any stains on the trousers.
‘There’s something not right here, Messel.’
He carefully lowered the body and placed the jacket and coat back. Gently. As if he was tidying a scruffy child for church.
‘Whoever did it took his papers. No wallet. No pass. No workbook. Nothing that might identify him.’
It was easy to suggest a motive for the murder. The dead man’s money had gone and the papers had probably already been sold on. There were plenty of buyers for new identities nowadays. Jews. Criminals. Even the odd party member looking to get out before it all fell apart. And yet …
‘I don’t see this as robbery. Thieves always go for a certain type of person. Does this one look to you like a natural victim?’
He turned to where the trainee detective had been standing and realized he’d spent the last few minutes talking to himself. The two uniformed Schutzpolizei officers who’d called them out were trying to persuade several passers-by to go home, while Stefan Messel, the latest high-flier attached to him by the idiots in Munich, had moved off to intercept Obersturmführer Klaus Kleidorfer, the deputy head of the local Gestapo.
He and Kleidorfer had studied law together in Munich immediately after the last war. He’d disliked the man even then and he saw no reason to change his view now. Kleidorfer was an arrogant fool who insisted on using his SS rank, a ridiculous affectation, even for a Gestapo officer. And what was someone like that doing in Rosenheim? In Gestapo terms, it was scarcely frontline stuff. Even Ritter wasn’t there by choice. When Himmler took over the Munich police and started clearing out anyone who wasn’t trusted, he’d slipped back home, out of the way. Why Kleidorfer felt the need to follow him wasn’t clear. Sophie always said he was making too much of it, insisted it was a coincidence, nothing more. But it didn’t feel that way. Every time he turned out on a job the Gestapo man was there, a few minutes behind him, watching him, an ever present threat.
And then there was Messel.
Probationary Commissar Stefan Messel, straight out of the Hitler Youth and onto the Kripo fast-track. Blond-haired and blue-eyed. Aryan beyond the dreams of the most demanding of Goebbels’s propaganda merchants. The idiots at the detective training college in Fürstenberg had fed him all the party shit about ‘racial criteria in criminality’ and the boy had swallowed it whole.
He turned back to the body, already stiff from rigor mortis. Or was it frozen solid? It was difficult to tell. Rigor mortis. It had to be. It just felt that cold out here on the bridge. He crouched back down and for the first time noticed a small white briar rose tucked into the buttonhole of the man’s jacket.
‘So perhaps it wasn’t the money after all,’ he said, louder this time, trying to attract Messel’s attention. It didn’t work. He looked around.
The boy was talking earnestly to Kleidorfer. He could only hear the occasional fragment of conversation. He caught the words ‘genetic criminality’. Ritter closed his eyes, swallowed hard and called out, ‘Hey, Messel. Get your arse over here. You’re supposed to be helping me investigate a murder not pontificating about the state of the world.’
The boy’s face betrayed a flush of irritation at being so openly addressed as a junior in front of Kleidorfer. Or maybe he was simply embarrassed. Who cared? Messel was there to learn. The chance to examine the body of a murder victim was rare in a place like Rosenheim. The boy needed to focus on what was important and convincing Kleidorfer of his suitability as a useful ally for the Gestapo was definitely not on that list.
Ritter stood up, leaned back slightly, and sighed as he watched Messel and Kleidorfer walk towards him. His irritation with the probationer wasn’t going to go away anytime soon, but he needed to keep a clear head, to get on with the job.
‘Look at that, Messel.’
He pointed at the tiny flower. The two of them crouched down to examine it more closely. Kleidorfer remained standing. Disinterested. Aloof from it all. His long shadow looming over them.
Messel had caught Kleidorfer’s mood.
‘It’s a flower. It looks half-dead. Does it matter? He was probably trying to impress some tart.’
‘It’s a white rose, Messel.’ His voice showed no emotion, no reaction to the boy’s dismissive response. ‘It means something. They say it’s the symbol of the resistance.’
Kleidorfer’s indifference came to a swift end. The Gestapo officer crouched down, briefly looking over at the two Schupo before turning his attention back to him.
‘I hope, Inspector, that you’re not seriously suggesting that there might be any kind of real opposition to the Führer here in Bavaria.’
It was a thinly disguised warning. Kleidorfer letting him know there were dangers in not being a true convert to the new ways. But he couldn’t stop himself.
‘Come on, Kleidorfer. Everyone’s heard of the White Rose. It’s not a state secret.’
The banter between the two Schupo officers and the drunken sightseers died away. The Gestapo officer leaned in towards him, puckering his face in an exaggerated act of smelling the alcohol that lingered on his breath before continuing with his lecture.
‘The White Rose? Degenerates and delinquents. Nothing more. Inside the Reich …’
Kleidorfer paused, stood up and smoothed down his coat in a curiously prim fashion, playing to his audience. The Gestapo officer looked straight into his eyes, and began the sentence again as if to ensure that he, and anyone else who might be listening, understood that what he was about to say was not to be challenged.
‘Inside the Reich, there is nothing for anyone other than a fool to oppose.’ Another pause. ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’
Kleidorfer turned on his heels and walked off towards his Mercedes before he could respond. The performance was so ridiculously theatrical, Ritter struggled not to laugh. And yet, somehow, it had a chilling effect. No-one said a word. Halfway to his car, almost as an afterthought, Kleidorfer turned back towards them, gesturing at the body dismissively.
‘This man, whoever he was, was murdered for the contents of his wallet. If you want to find your killer, I suggest you look among your collection of usual suspects, the dregs of Rosenheim. I’m sure I really don’t need to teach the Kriminalpolizei how to do their job.’
Messel watched Kleidorfer get into his car, trying to catch the Gestapo officer’s eye, looking for acknowledgement of their new-found friendship. When it didn’t come, the boy turned back to him, as if he was to blame for Kleidorfer’s stupidity.
‘See what you’ve done? Klaus has a lot of influence in Munich. This won’t look good for either of us.’
‘Klaus?’ He couldn’t help but sneer at Messel’s over-familiar use of Kleidorfer’s Christian name. ‘Klaus fucking Kleidorfer? Do you seriously think that if he had any influence, they’d have sent him to a backwater like this to babysit a suspect detective and his damn fool apprentice?’
Messel’s cockiness was replaced by the hurt look of a scolded child. Ritter briefly felt a pang of guilt. The boy wasn’t a bad sort. Just eager to please. The nonsense he talked was drummed into all the kids now − at school, in the Hitler Youth, by the idiots at Fürstenberg. Messel wasn’t alone in believing it and he could scarcely hold up his own stubborn refusal to conform as an example of how to get on. All he’d got from sticking to ‘good, old-fashioned detective work’ and refusing to join the SS, like some of his more compliant colleagues, was no promotion and a Gestapo nursemaid. It only made it worse that his minder was Kleidorfer, Sophie’s childhood sweetheart. He heard his wife pleading with him again to hide his hatred of the Nazis and what they represented.
‘If you’d only shown willing, joined the SS, we could have stayed in Munich. We wouldn’t have had to come to this boring little place. Klaus doesn’t criticize the Party. He’s a good man too. Why do you think it’s only you who can save the world?’
Her words of support for Kleidorfer still cut deep into his psyche. He’d never doubted her until then. Until he realized how tightly those childhood bonds still tied her to that Gestapo bastard. What lurked in the remnants of their old friendship?
‘Klaus Kleidorfer is a good man.’
It took him a moment before he realized it wasn’t Sophie speaking. It was Messel defending himself, and Kleidorfer, against his criticism. He tried to soften his tone.
‘Listen, Messel. You’re here to learn. I’ve only got six months to teach you how to do the job before you move on to higher things. So I’m going to make damn certain you know what you’re doing before we’re done. There are enough idiots out there telling us what to do, without me adding another one to the pile.’
It was no good. He knew the boy was keen to impress. But he couldn’t hide his anger over Messel’s attempts to butter up Kleidorfer.
‘Let’s just concentrate on doing our job. Our body is clearly not local. The label on this jacket is from some Jewish tailor in Berlin. It must be years old. Go through the hotel guest lists. Find out who’s missing. We’ll never get anywhere until we know who he was.’
To read the entire book, buy No Man Dies Twice at amazon.co.uk
or if you are in the United States buy it at amazon.com or at a bookshop near you!
“A brandy-soaked police inspector in Nazi Germany with a faithless wife, a Gestapo nemesis, and an out-of-favor sense of justice makes this a fascinating read with a terrific sense of place. No Man Dies Twice is filled with believable characters doing their best—or worst—in this tense wartime mystery”.
—James R. Benn, author of the Billy Boyle World War II Mystery series
“Riveting. Smith takes us into an area of wartime Germany we have rarely read about before, and into the lives of characters torn by the choices war visits on individuals.”
––Joseph Heywood, New York Times bestselling author of The Berkut and The Domino Conspiracy
Listen to Michael Smith talking about the book in this Spybrary Podcast
Read more at michaelsmithauthor.com
Follow Michael Smith at @MickWSmith