Reviewed by Jim Napier
Halifax, 1996: After a night on the town Father Brennan Burke is sleeping off a hangover of mammoth proportions when he is awakened by Archbishop Dennis Cronin. His Grace is not best pleased: Meika Keller, a parishioner and active member of the diocese, has been found dead, a possible suicide. And Father Burke had missed an appointment they had scheduled for the previous evening, in the hours leading up to her death.
Father Burke is devastated. If only he had avoided the drink he would have remembered their appointment and met with her, and she might still be alive. He cannot escape the conclusion that, in a very real sense, her blood is on his hands. But if not forgivable, his drinking was at least understandable. Brennan Burke had only recently been released after spending eight months in a prison in Northern Ireland, caught up in the lingering intrigues and accusations that still smouldered years after the violence between Republicans and Loyalists had formally been put to rest. Brennan’s younger brother Terry had come to Halifax to check up on his older sibling, and a night on the tiles had been sorely needed by both men.
But an explanation is not a justification, and Brennan Burke feels an overwhelming need to look further into the circumstances of Meika Keller’s final days, in the hope that he will absolve himself of his sense of guilt for her death.
Brennan’s closest friend is Monty Collins, a criminal lawyer, the only such aberration permitted at the otherwise staid firm of Stratton Sommers. He has no idea that the circumstances of Father Burke’s imprisonment in Ireland had been made worse by his own lack of involvement at the time; he had been crucially involved in the case of a client, and had failed to appreciate the significance of Burke’s plight when he might have made a important difference. They had not discussed the matter, but the relationship between Monty Collins and Brennan Burke had been forever altered.
Detective Sergeants Piet Van den Brink and Ailsa Young have been assigned to look into Meika’s death. The evidence suggests she apparently walked from a local park into the sea and drowned herself. But why would she do so?
Gradually a picture of Meika’s life emerges. A professor of Physics at St. Mary’s University, she had fled communist East Germany in 1974 with her young daughter Helga. Helga had died shortly after this, and Meika had moved to Toronto, where she earned her degrees in science. She had moved to Halifax and taken up a teaching post, and remarried.
The medical examiner finds that the injuries on Meika’s body are consistent with defensive wounds, but they are ambiguous: they might equally have been caused by her body being tossed against the rocks in the waters where she was found. When a witness comes forward who says he saw two people in a car in the park, arguing the night before her death, and when a man admits to being in a relationship with her, and is identified as being in the park the same night, the events seem straightforward: he is arrested and charged with her murder.
But Brennan Burke is haunted by Meika’s death, and struggles to come to terms with his own role in her final days. He learns that Meika Keller had changed her name after fleeing East Germany; her real name had been Edelgard Vogt-Becker. Why had she taken a new identity? Was there some lingering threat having to do with her former life in East Germany? Then Brennan discovers that shortly before her death Meika received a postcard from Berlin. Did that somehow play a role in her death? He decides to travel to Germany to see for himself.
Postmark Berlin is a fine addition to an already very strong series of novels by multiple award-winning author Anne Emery. Featuring a gripping plot supported by nuanced and believable characters, and informed by the author’s firm knowledge of history and the community of Halifax, the layered story of a complex woman and her equally convoluted past carries the reader along effortlessly to its satisfying conclusion. Coming on the heels of Though the Heavens Fall, her previous and award-winning novel in the Collins-Burke series, Postmark Berlin cements Anne Emery’s position among the top half-dozen crime writers in Canada.
Postmark Berlin is published by ECW Press.
Jim Napier is a professional crime-fiction reviewer based in Canada. Since 2005 his book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian newspapers and on multiple websites. His crime novel Legacy was published in April of 2017, and the second in the series, Ridley’s War, is scheduled for release in the late summer of 2020. He can be reached at jnapier@deadlydiversions.