“The Pursuit of Pearls” Jane Thynne (Ballantine Books, NY) – novel review

Book Cover of The Pursuit of Pearls of Jane Thynne

In Berlin in 1939, actress Clara Vine, who is half English, half German, finds herself cast in “Germania” a proposed history of the Aryan race directed by Leni Riefenstahl. Clara’s grateful for the work as a distraction from the tragic news that Lottie Franke, an aspiring costume designer, has been murdered. Lottie was a student at the prestigous Faith and Beauty School where graduates were expected to marry high ranking SS officers. Clara visits both Lottie’s parents and her best friend Hedwig to pay respects, when she is thrown by Hedwig’s comment that no one at the school seems to be grieving Lottie, Clara suggests Hedwig keeps in touch. Hedwig lets slip that Lottie had a secret lover and had hidden something – Hedwig doesn’t know what – that can’t be found.

Clara Vine is also an English spy tasked with getting closer to the von Ribbentrops to find out what their plans are – it’s an open secret in Berlin that Annelies Ribbentrop is the power half of that couple. British Intelligence are trying to establish whether the Nazis will form an alliance with the Russians. It’s an open secret that Germany is preparing for war. Clara meets Hugh, a tweed-suit loving English journalist who knows of her sister. She also meets Conrad Adler who is working in the foreign ministry on art acquisitions actually reports to Reinhard Heydrich, a sadist head of security and, she discovers has done his research on her. Although her father is a Nazi sympathiser, her later mother had Jewish origins. If those origins are revealed, Clara would be treated as a Jew. Being an outsider but also welcomed by the Nazi elite, thanks to Hitlers’ love of art and Goebbels’ love of film, Clara finds herself an occasional confidente of the wives of the senior Nazis, one of whom warns her that rumours are being spread about her. She also finds out that Lottie’s secret lover isn’t the only one trying to find what Lottie hid. Initially it was assumed to be a jewel because it’s know that it was highly valuable and Lottie was murdered to keep it secret. Can Clara pass a vital message to British Intelligence without her cover being blown and when she doesn’t know who to trust in an atmosphere of increasing paranoia when her life is in danger? Just as she is getting close to discovering who Lottie’s murderer was, she is arrested by the Gestapo and has to draw on her acting skills to survive. A person who has murdered once to keep a secret safe, will do so again and again if necessary.

Although this is not the first book featuring Clara Vine and some of the characters also first appeared in “The Scent of Secrets”, it is not necessary for readers to have read the first book. “The Pursuit of Pearls” works as a stand alone novel. It 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 Pursuit of Pearls” works just as well as historical fiction as it does an espionage novel. Jane Thynne’s credible leading characters and sumptuous atmospheric details bring Berlin alive. Jane Thynne gives herself space to explore themes of loyalty and betrayal, and how factions within the Nazi party competed with each other so allowing extremism to rise.

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. “The Pursuit of Pearls” is both a satisfying spy novel and a detailed look at life in Berlin in 1939, with particular focus on the lives of women.

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