In Berlin in 1937, in a school for housewives, one of the students, Anna Hansen, is found murdered. The murder is hushed up, but none of the students dare counter this because if they lose their place at school, they could lose their future. The students are schooled in household budgeting, cooking to entertain, child care and running a household fitting for the Nazi elite. Anna Hansen was hoping to graduate and marry an SS Obersturmführer. Students at the school were discouraged from having personal possessions, but Anna kept a travel writing bureau with letters from her fiancé and family.
Meanwhile, Clara Vine, an English actress with a late German mother and English politician father, who had known Anna, is invited to Madga Goebbels’ house to be a translator as the Goebbels are entertaining the Mitford sisters amongst other guests. Goebbels is also seeking to turn a visit from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor into a propaganda opportunity. Clara’s loyalties are not straightforward. Her father is a right-wing politician and Nazi-sympathiser, but Clara’s German mother had Jewish origins (although the British embassy has erased traces of these origins so Clara presents impeccable credentials to the Nazis).
In her latest film, Clara is playing the part of a pilot’s wife who travels to enemy territory to trace her missing-in-action husband. Her screen husband is handsome actor and war-hero pilot Ernst Udet. Ernst’s day-job is with the German Air Ministry, developing aero-technology. Clara also meets Ernst’s best friend, Arno Strauss who takes her for a ride on a test flight. Clara tells Arno the flight was useful to help her get into character.
Clara’s friend, Mary Harker, an American journalist, returns to Berlin. Under cover of writing a feature on the bride school, she tries to find out what she can about Anna Hansen’s death. Anna’s best friend at the school gives Mary the travel writing bureau with Anna’s letters. Mary passes these to Clara who decides to trace Anna’s sister Katia and return the correspondence to her family. However, Katia doesn’t want the letters. She has enough problems of her own: an unplanned pregnancy, a boyfriend who’s left her and she’s hiding from Anna’s ex-boyfriend. Katia, rightly as it turns out, suspects the ex-boyfriend murdered Anna. Clara discovers the Gestapo are also interested in Anna’s letters. Their interest puts Clara in danger. If the Gestapo were behind Anna’s murder, then Clara has to turn detective and work out why Anna was murdered before the Gestapo catch up with her.
Clara is also a spy, passing information back to the British embassy and she is asked to keep an eye on any developments with the Mitford sisters and the Windsors’ visit. At the party, she meets Ralph Sommers a former RAF pilot turned aeroplane parts business owner whom Clara later discovers learnt fluent German whilst a prisoner in the First World War. When not pretending to be a party-going Nazi-sympathiser, Ralph is collecting intelligence on Nazi aeroplane technology and sees Clara as a useful connection. However, he is not reporting to the British Ambassador and when he approaches Clara for help, she’s not sure how far she can trust him.
Emmy Goering invites Clara to a reception where the Mitfords and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor will be in attendance. Both Emmy and Magda Goebbels see Clara as a useful go-between who can report on gossip between the fiercely competitive wives of the Nazi elite. When Emmy asks if there’s a man in Clara’s life, Clara tells her that Arno Strauss has caught her eye. She’s still not sure that she can trust Ralph Sommers but sees no harm in finding out more about her co-star’s best friend. She discovers the Germans are developing cameras to take aerial photos, giving them the upper hand in an aerial war. Clara discovers there’s a photography link to Anna’s murder: negatives of compromising photos of Hitler that were supposed to have been destroyed have gone missing and it’s suspected they were in Anna’s possession. Can Clara find them before the Gestapo and/or Anna’s ex-boyfriend kill her? Clara knows how fragile her links with Magda Goebbels and Emmy Goering are and how quickly they would be broken if the Gestapo catch up with her. But can she use the constant need to score points against each other between the wives and their officer husbands to her advantage?
Although this is not the first book featuring Clara Vine and some of characters who first appeared in “Black Roses”, it is not necessary for readers to have read the first book. “The Winter Garden” works as a stand alone novel. Like, “Black Roses”, “The Winter Garden” has the richness of atmospheric details that make Berlin as much of a character of the book as Clara Vine. However, these background details are not allowed to hold up the plot.
Richly-layered, “The Winter Garden” works just as well as historical fiction as it does an espionage novel. Jane Thynne’s credible leading characters and sumptuous atmospheric details bring the Berlin of 1937 alive. Jane Thynne gives herself space to explore themes of loyalty and betrayal, how the war impacted on people’s lives (for good and bad) and how factions within the Nazi party competed with each other so allowing extremism to rise. Clara saves herself by playing on the desire of one Nazi leader to score points against his rival. However, this is not a safe strategy because it relies on the leader keeping his position and not losing ground to his opponent. In every action she takes, Clara has to thoroughly think through the potential consequences and ensure she has an exit strategy. In a time of paranoia and suspicion, a friend can become an enemy in a heartbeat.
By Emma Lee