Review of “The Girl from Berlin” by Ronald H. Balson

This book is the fifth in the Liam Taggart and Catherine Lockhart legal procedural series. I did not read any of the previous books, but didn’t feel like I was out of the loop in any way. This one is also a historical fiction novel; it goes back and forth between 2017 in Pienza, Italy and the 1930s – primarily in Berlin and Bologna.

In the present day, Tony Vincenzo in Chicago asks Liam and Catherine to travel to Tuscany to help his Aunt Gabi in Pienza who was being threatened with eviction. (Catherine is an attorney, and her husband Liam is a private investigator.)

A Tuscan attorney had informed Gabi, who is 78, that she had sixty days to vacate; he claimed the land was owned by VinCo, a billion-dollar corporation. Gabi went through two previous lawyers, who both only wanted Gabi to take the money offered by VinCo and go live somewhere else. But she had no intention of leaving if she could help it.

Liam and Catherine tried to get information from Gabi about how she got the land and why VinCo thought she was not entitled to it. She asked them to read a memoir by Ada Baumgarten that would provide all the answers.

Ada’s story is told in chapters alternating with the account of Liam and Catherine’s attempts to obtain documentation for Gabi in the present. (You would think, given that Gabi said they would find out what they needed to know by reading the manuscript, they would do more than peruse a couple of chapters a day.)

Ada was born in Berlin on November 11, 1918 and became a concert violinist as a young girl. Her career was interrupted and ultimately ended, however, by the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany. Because Ada was Jewish, she was not only prevented from playing as the Nazis enacted more and more restrictions on Jews, but eventually targeted for elimination, and sent to the Auschwitz killing camp.

In the meantime, Liam and Catherine eventually get both an Italian lawyer to help them and a lawyer in Germany, who can help with corporate records for VinCo.

Time is running out though, and the pressure is intense to come up with evidence of Gabi’s ownership in spite of obfuscation and delay from all corners.

Discussion: I felt the author was acting on a desire to express various passions with this book: a love of Tuscany (and indeed, who can blame him?) and a desire to educate readers on what happened during the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. Moreover, the author from time to time inserted subtle parallels between fascism and Trumpism, giving it the feel of a “cautionary tale.”

All of this was instructive even if not integrated so smoothly into the narration. The story in the book-within-the-book – Ada’s memoir – was good but the understanding Ada had of the situation seemed a little too prescient for a young girl living through events in the 1930s. She claimed much of what she knew came from her friend Natalia, who had contacts as an underground partisan, but Natalia too had more of a 21st century knowledge of, and insight into, what the Nazis were doing than was believable.

Similarly, some of the dialogue in the 1930s employed 2017 usage that was unlikely to have obtained in the 1930s. (As just one example, Natalia talks of seeing Mussolini “suck up to Hitler.”)

Finally, as mentioned above, the fact that the investigators took so long to read a manuscript that was supposed to be crucial to their investigation beggars belief.

Evaluation: In spite of some quibbles I had, this was a good story, and kept my attention throughout. The legal complications, which can’t be revealed lest they spoil the story, were very interesting, as was Ada’s story.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2018

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4 Responses to Review of “The Girl from Berlin” by Ronald H. Balson

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    It bothers me when historical fiction uses current phrases but it is something I can live with. The story sounds interesting and I love the cover.

  2. Mae says:

    Poor scholarship makes me uneasy — if I read something supposedly historical I don’t want to “learn” things that are made up or misunderstood by the author. So you’ve convinced me to stay away from this one. THANKS!!

    best…mae at

  3. I had no problem with the history, everything I Googled about The Girl from Berlin checked out. It’s wonderful how historical fiction can combine the nuts and bolts of history with the deeply and sensitively imagined lives of fictional characters. How would it have felt to be in the shoes of a talented Jewish musician in Hitler’s Germany? That kind of story, well told makes history come alive. I never forget that the main storyline is fiction, but I check the parts which might be historical – the Theresienstadt Ghetto, for instance. There are millions of historical facts about the Great Depression – how would it feel to be involved in a murder case of that time?

    Good review. Yes, I also got the Trump connection and noticed some language errors but I loved the legal aspects. Still, I love Robert Balsom’s worrks, even though I know he’s not the greatest writer. I’ve read all 5 of his books now.

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