Berlin, 1933. Warning bells ring across Europe as Hitler comes to power. Clara Vine, an attractive young Anglo-German actress, arrives in Berlin to find work at the famous Ufa studios. Through a chance meeting, she is unwillingly drawn into a circle of Nazi wives, among them Magda Goebbels, Anneliese von Ribbentrop and Goering’s girlfriend Emmy Sonnemann.
As part of his plan to create a new pure German race, Hitler wants to make sweeping changes to the lives of women, starting with the formation of a Reich Fashion Bureau, instructing women on what to wear and how to behave. Clara is invited to model the dowdy, unflattering clothes. Then she meets Leo Quinn who is working for British intelligence and who sees in Clara the perfect recruit to spy on her new elite friends, using her acting skills to win their confidence.
Clara Vine, a twenty-six year old Anglo-German actress, arrives in Germany in the hopes of finding a starring role in a new film being shot at the famous Ufa studios where actresses like Marlene Dietrich became stars.
Unfortunately for Clara, the rise of Nazism is stifling the studios creativity and many of the actors and directors are fleeing to America. Clara decides to stay in Berlin where she befriends a German actress, Helga Schmitt, and both ladies are soon drawing unwanted attention from Nazi officers, particularly Joseph Goebbels who has been appointed Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. As well as being an aspiring actress, Clara also happens to be the daughter of Sir Ronald Vine, an English politician with Nazi sympathies and Clara becomes a valuable resource to the Nazis who are currying favour abroad.
Despite Clara’s reluctance to become involved in politics, she continues to play the game for the sake of her career but she is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the underlying cruelty of the Nazis. Clara has also come to the attention of Leo Quinn, a young man who works for British Intelligence, who wants her to spy on the Nazis but she refuses. Despite the growing atrocities towards Jews, Clara is only prompted to begin spying for Leo when she discovers her own maternal grandmother was Jewish, a fact that Clara’s father has been careful to keep secret. Since Clara states on more than one occasion that the Nazis seemed to know all about her background, I found it hard to swallow that her Jewish grandmother was never brought up again, especially since Clara still had German relatives who could have easily been traced.
Since Joseph Goebbels has an eye for beautiful actresses, he persuades his wife, Magda, to invite Clara to model her new range of German clothing and Clara finds herself increasingly drawn into the world of the wives of prominent Nazi leaders. Since Magda Goebbels is aware of her husband’s attraction to Clara, I found it rather curious Clara and Goebbels were hardly ever together in the book and instead Clara is forced to sleep with another Nazi officer, Klaus Muller, who barely tells her anything of value but is far more sinister. Clara finds most of her information by spending time with Magda who is an intriguing historical figure but I never felt the author fully got to grips with her as a character. The real Magda Goebbels was known as the First Lady of the Reich who poisoned her six children and took her own life the day after Hitler killed himself in 1945.
The danger increases for Clara when Magda asks her to act as an intermediary between her and her former Jewish lover, Haim Arlosoroff, a prominent Zionist who she once hoped to marry. Unbeknownst to Clara, Joseph Goebbels is well aware of his wife’s contact with Arlosoroff and is using Magda as a means of assassinating him but the attempt is thwarted when Leo Quinn realises what is happening. Goebbels has Clara’s friend, Helga, killed as a warning to Clara but her reaction to Helga’s death is very flat considering how afraid she is supposed to be of Goebbels. Clara’s subsequent relationship with Leo is also a dud since they have zero chemistry.
Black Roses had an intriguing premise for me as I’ve not read many books set in Germany as Hitler was rising to power and certainly not from the female perspective. However, the best part of this book is how well the author depicts the atmosphere of Berlin in the 1930s and the changes wrought by the rise of Nazism.