Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband, who is a law professor, and her West Highland terrier, who is a law unto herself. Her Boyfriend’s Bones, the fourth book in the series, is in bookstores now. You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at www.jeannematthews.com.
The following was posted previously on the Poisoned Pen Press blog.
I spent part of September in Berlin doing research for my next Dinah Pelerin mystery. Dinah and her Norwegian boyfriend, Thor, decided to move to the city at the end of my last book and so naturally, I had to reconnoiter the place.
The last time I visited Berlin in 1968, people were still being shot trying to escape from the Soviet-controlled East into the West. To say that a lot has changed is an understatement. In 1989, after more than a quarter century, the massive cement block wall that divided the city came down in a bloodless revolution and in 1990, the two Germanys reunified. Today, Berlin is the capital of the richest country in Europe and raring to make up for lost time.
There are almost no old buildings in Berlin. The Allies bombed those to rubble during WWII and the new Berlin is a mosaic of uber-modern architecture and rampant development. Boom cranes sprout across the skyline like dandelions and the noise of construction is so constant you cease to notice. One of the more curious sights is the jungle of gigantic pink, yellow, and blue pipes that parallel the streets, snake around corners, climb and loop overhead. Is it art or is it plumbing gone mad? Turns out, Berlin sits smack in the middle of a swamp. Before a new building can be erected, water must be pumped from the foundation pit into the River Spree or one of the many canals. Berlin has more bridges than Venice and, during my stay, it had more rain than sunshine. But rain and fog work well in a murder mystery and Berlin’s history makes it feel like KGB weather.
Revelations that the U.S. has been bugging European Union offices and embassies have stirred dark memories for Berliners. They had enough of being spied on by the Stasi secret police and the KGB during the Cold War and they don’t like the idea that a foreign agency is secretly keeping tabs on them. Berliners can, however, keep tabs on their own government. The renovated Reichstag, where the German parliament meets, was designed with a huge glass dome to symbolize transparency in government and affords a view directly into the parliamentary chamber. It is a stunning piece of architecture and seen from the inside, it dazzles the eye. Berliners call it the disco ball.
The pregnant oyster, the wet meatball, chick on a stick – Berliners have a habit of nicknaming their oddly shaped buildings, fountains, and war memorials. The chick is the golden angel that sits atop a column commemorating the Prussian victory over the French in 1870. Perhaps it’s the city’s authoritarian past that engenders this attitude of irreverence, or perhaps it’s the fact that almost a third of Berliners migrated from other countries.
Like enlightened people everywhere, the Germans have banned smoking in public buildings, offices, and restaurants. As a consequence, the streets reek of cigarette smoke. Neither the dire warnings of early death printed on the packages nor the exorbitant cost have dissuaded Berliners from smoking. I’m not just talking about construction workers and rebellious students. Elegantly attired businessmen and beautiful women of all ages stroll along with cigarettes in hand and there’s no such thing as a lonely, hangdog smoker huddled outside his office like an outcast. There’s always a crowd, smoking and chatting happily.
When these nihilists aren’t killing themselves with cigarettes, they’re killing themselves with decadent desserts – apple strudels mounded with great dollops of whipped cream, spectacular chocolate tortes garnished with nuts and glazed fruits, rich parfaits piled high with gorgeous berries. And as if the sugar and butter weren’t deadly enough, there’s a store that sells two thousand kinds of sausages and thirteen hundred different cheeses. These culinary indulgences appear to cause neither guilt nor obesity. In fact, the locals look remarkably self-satisfied and svelte. As with the French, there seems to be a Berlin paradox.
Given her fascination with ancient cultures, Dinah will be knocked out by the reconstructed Gates of Ishtar on display at the Pergamon Museum. The blue tiled gate was part of the walls of Babylon, painstakingly excavated and reassembled by archaeologists. Ironically, Berlin’s city planners want to tear down the remaining remnant of their famous wall and build something new on the site. Protests have stymied the plan temporarily, but progress marches on. Speaking of walls and progress, Dinah’s internal divisions seem destined to crumble now that she’s committed to move in with Thor.
I found an apartment for the lovebirds on Niederwallstrasse near Hausvogteiplatz. Thor will have an easy commute to the Norwegian Embassy and Dinah can walk to Humboldt University where she has landed a job as a visiting lecturer on Native American cultures. Berlin is a new beginning. The future looks as bright as a disco ball. What could possibly go wrong?
My working title for the new book is “Where the Bones Are Buried.”