Anna Hansen, a bride-to-be, is a pupil at one of Hitler’s notorious Nazi Bride Schools, where young women are schooled on the art of being an SS officer’s wife. Then, one night, she is brutally murdered and left in the gardens of the school. Her death will be hushed up and her life forgotten.
Clara Vine is an actress at Berlin’s famous Ufa studios by day and an undercover British Intelligence agent by night. She knew Anna and is disturbed by news of her death. She cannot understand why someone would want to cover it up, but she soon discovers that Anna’s murder is linked to a far more ominous secret.
The Winter Garden is the second in the Clara Vine series which follows the adventures of an Anglo-German actress who is also a spy for British Intelligence. Five years have passed since the events of Black Roses and Clara is about to headline her first film alongside one of Germany’s greatest aviation heroes, Ernst Udet.
On the spy front, Clara has been continuing to feed information to the British but her relationship with Leo Quinn is long over. Feeling alone, Clara seeks solace in her adopted godson, Erich Schmidt, the son of her murdered friend, Helga, but she is growing increasingly dismayed by his involvement in the Hitler Youth movement.
Clara is living in dangerous times and it becomes all the more evident when she learns she is being watched by the Gestapo who have become increasingly suspicious of her activities. Nevertheless, when Clara is approached by Ralph Sommers to glean information on Germany’s air force by getting close to Ernst Udet and his friend Arno Strauss, she feels she has no alternative.
Clara finds herself once more drawn into the tight social circle of the Nazi elite as they prepare for the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the danger increases significantly when she is drawn into the murder of Anna Hansen at the Reich Bride School. Anna’s murder is swept under the rug by the police but when Clara recognises Anna was once a model for a Jewish artist friend, she realises Anna’s death may not be as straight forward as it seems and may be part of a cover up. Against advice, Clara continues to investigate Anna’s death but the consequences may be severe as those closest to her are threatened.
I have to say The Winter Garden came as a surprise to me as I did not realise Black Roses was the start of a trilogy, however I liked the first book enough to continue with Clara’s story. The second book is even better than the first since all the introductory stuff is out of the way and the characters are much more vibrant. There are a lot of real life people in this book, particularly amongst the high ranking Nazis and visiting dignitaries, however Thynne manages to blend them in effortlessly with her own creations to the extent they never stick out like a sore thumb.
The setting in Berlin and Bavaria is utilised to maximum benefit and I love how Thynne manages to control the historical information enough to enhance the story without drowning it in detail. Five years on, the Nazis have a tighter grip on the city and the Berliners are realistically portrayed as both people who are embracing Hitler’s ideal and those who fear it. There are definite storm clouds on the horizon as Germany prepares itself for war but many of the foreign journalists still seem oblivious to the inherent danger. Clara’s journalist friend, Mary, returns to Berlin and is one of the few who is horrified by the changes she is witnessing and her efforts to expose the truth hint at the new wave of photo journalism. I really love Mary and her bold as brass American attitude so I’m hoping we see more of her in the third book.
The book is let down by the lack of real focus on Anna’s death and it felt forced for Clara to come to the conclusion the death was more suspicious than it seemed. Mary does more investigating than Clara does who is more caught up in her activities with the troubled Arno Strauss – a far more interesting love interest than Ralph. The romance between Ralph and Clara is a complete dud but then so was her previous relationship with Leo.
Clara also does a lot of walking around the streets of Berlin which is great for setting the scene but gets repetitive after a while and surely an unaccompanied woman out walking is exactly the sort of suspicious activity Clara should be avoiding? Clara doesn’t really do much with her spying other than listen to conversations at the various parties she attends but her scenes with the menacing Joseph Goebbels are always like a delicious game of cat and mouse. The diverse range of characters at the top of the Nazi regime are also really interesting with their political rivalries but I can’t help wishing Clara had come face to face with Hitler himself at some point. Maybe next time.