Molecule Men

“Molecule Men” is an excerpt from a novel in progress. Faber, a British graduate student, is investigating the life and death of expat detective author Charles Thornton in Berlin, Germany.

The canal was directionless, its still waters reflecting the arcing sun. Faber suspected that this route would bring him back to Reichenberger Strasse and to Marius’ apartment, and at that moment he preferred not to retrace his steps along Degarmo Strasse. Thornton’s apartment, a large, grey concrete cipher, was something that he would have to return to after he had learned more about the writer and his life in Berlin.

In the back of his mind, tape reels turned relentlessly clockwise, and he thought of the contraband recordings stowed in the pocket of his suitcase. He really ought to have thanked Stephen, should at least have sent him an e-mail. Pulling out his phone, his mind flashed forward and he saw himself scrolling through the contacts to Stephen L, but he soon recalled that his mobile had become nothing more than a hi-tech timepiece since leaving Gatwick yesterday morning.

After ten minutes, he saw Marius’ balcony above him, casting a shadow on the pavement below. Just past the balcony was the turning onto Reichenberger Strasse. The bare floorboards and light, wooden furniture of his friend’s apartment seemed a little cold as Faber made his way through the living room and back to the office. There was a note stuck to the outside of the door that he hadn’t noticed earlier. Scrawled quickly and almost illegibly in Marius’ hand were the words: Back by 9! M.

What he needed now was direction, purpose. Slumping onto the futon, he picked up the cheap Berlin travel guide that he had bought yesterday at the airport. The front cover was divided into two strips: on the left a vertical stripe of red with the word Berlin printed along it: to the left was a photograph of a tall, silvered steel or aluminium sculpture that formed the two-dimensional outline of a man. The figure, one arm and one leg extended in profile, was punctuated with holes of different sizes from its watery feet to the sunspot at the top of its head.

He jumped to the contents page and then on to directions to the sculpture, which appeared to be called the Molecule Man, a 100 foot high piece of modern art in a borough named Friedrichshain. The back cover told him that he could take the U1 there if he travelled several stops further away from Marius’s apartment and on past Thornton’s. Faber scooped a handful of the tapes into his satchel, letting them fall between the books that were already stowed inside it.

He then went back to the suitcase where, nestled between the neatly folded clothes, there was a pea-green Sony Walkman. A remnant of his childhood, it had been stashed in the back of a closet at his parents’ home with a pair of 1980s headphones tangled around it. He could never have suspected that it would come in this useful nearly twenty years later. Though he had substituted the worn-down headphones for a spare pair of iPod ear buds, it still reminded him of the small, warm home in Kent where he had grown up, and of evenings spent listening to 1960s rock n’ roll on hand-me-down cassette tapes.

The satchel was bulging, but he needed one more thing. In the living room, Marius’ laptop was open on the coffee table. Faber swiped the mouse pad and typed “the second murderer thornton” into the search bar. He pulled up a copy of the short story and hit Print.

Stories, he knew, had a tendency to begin. And Thornton’s was no exception. Published in 19__, “The Second Murderer” had been the author’s debut, and as lost as Faber felt, he knew that this was somewhere to begin.

He picked up his bag and promised himself, for the thousandth time, that he would switch to an altogether less heavy career.

₰   ₰   ₰

As he stepped into the U-Bahn for the second time that morning, a trio of middle-aged Germans entered at the other end of the carriage. Two were wearing dark sunglasses, one carrying a guitar and the other a clarinet; the third had a saxophone slung across his chest and a trilby jauntily balanced on his head. Faber sat down and pulled out the Thornton story, but as the train rolled away from the platform, they began to perform.

A syncopated beat on the guitar underscored a familiar melody. It took a few bars for their soft-jazz “When the Saints Go Marching In” to worm its way into Faber’s brain. The melody moved from sax to clarinet, and the saxophonist stepped forward, negotiating with expert balance the aisle of the moving train car, and holding out his hat in search of spare change.

Most eyes remained fixed on the floor as he passed, but by the time his pepper-grey stubble reached Faber, tourist’s guilt had set in and the Englishman was digging in his jeans pocket for some coins. His hand came out with a five Euro note as the sax player reached his end of the train.

“Sorry,” Faber said, directing a wan smile at the old man and so sealing the fate of the five Euros in his hand. “I don’t have anything smaller.”

A gleam in the busker’s eye turned into a grin, and he bowed deeply, trilby extended carefully under Faber’s chin. The note fell into the hat, the saxophonist straightened, and he said: “Thank you. We collect for the Imaginary Manufacture.”

Faber wondered if he’d misheard the old man, suspected that he had heard English words where there had been only German.

“The Imaginary Manufacture?” he repeated.

“Yes. For the blind.”

He turned and gestured back to his accompanists, who, Faber realised, were sightless behind their dark glasses. This seemed to be all the explanation the saxophonist would offer, so he bowed, turned and muttered: “Again, thank you.”

The train was slowing as the man ambled back to join his companions, and when the doors shunted open at Görlitzer Bahnhof, they exited. Faber watched them disappear behind accelerating train windows, then pulled out a ballpoint pen and scribbled at the top of the Thornton story the words “Imaginary Manufacture” and an oversized question mark.

Finally, he let his eyes wander to the first paragraphs of the story, let them skim forward as the U-Bahn did the same.

“The Second Murderer”
by Charles Thornton

Most cases begin with a bang. This one was no exception.

It had been the usual damp and lonely Wednesday afternoon before the dame in the red dress drifted into his office. She was tall and slender, the curves of a bowling pin and then some. Drawing on a cigarette, rich smoke rose like a curlicue into the room, and Delaney tried to infer the brand from the small twists that she was puffing toward his face. Gauloises, maybe?

She was wealthy, or at least prided herself on appearing so. The shiny silk hugged her figure and then disappeared under a powder-blue bolero jacket that clashed with the scarlet dress. Don’t mention the jacket, Delaney said to himself.

“Nice jacket,” Delaney said. “You’re late.”

But he was interrupted by a THUD. From out of her clutch a package wrapped in parcel paper and twine dropped onto the rosewood table top. Delaney almost spilled his coffee. Then he pulled himself together and tugged the cuffs of his white shirt another half-inch towards his fingertips, tilted his head approximately 45 degrees to the left, and asked—


A voice sounded over the train car’s PA system. Looking up, Faber saw the movement of people and realised that they had reached the last stop. Crumpling “The Second Murderer” into his bag, he stepped onto the platform and followed the stream of people moving towards exit onto Warschauer Strasse.

Moving into the sunlight, he turned right and headed for the canal waters that were glistening below. Berlin’s veins, he thought.

Though his reading had been cut short, he didn’t much care. Like many writerly debuts, Thornton’s first piece of fiction was formulaic, although it showed more of a literary bent than some of his contemporaries’ stories. Faber didn’t need to read it again. In the end, the dame wasn’t the killer. Her boyfriend, a gangster named Lyons who was the eponymous Second Murderer, had roped her into something, and in the end he made her choose between shooting the victim or being killed herself.

Compared to The Girl Who Lost Her Smile, it was a plot piece with little characterisation—Faber had admitted as much in the opening chapters of his dissertation—but it had been the first case solved by P.I Ray Delaney, and for that reason if no other, it was always noted in detective fiction and often reproduced in anthologies on Thornton and the pulp magazines of his time. The year it was published, 19__, Thornton had just returned from his army service, and more likely than not, he was trying only to earn some money by selling knock-off detectives to eager magazines.

Its literary merit aside, the story had served Faber well. Whenever he felt as though his dissertation was nothing more than a feeble attempt at building castles on cobwebs, he had turned back to “The Second Murderer” for its ludicrous similes and cardboard cut-out characters.

He made a left onto a street running parallel with the water, and there it was. A mile or so away, the Molecule Man towered out of the water and reflected sunlight back into the canal below. But he wasn’t alone. The photograph used on the guidebook’s cover showed only one figure, his hands extended outward as though in defence, and one leg pushed forward to form a giant step. Now Faber saw, as he moved closer, that there were three such figures, identically posed, and joined together at the hands and feet. They were surreally still in the summer afternoon.

They must have come after Thornton’s time, Faber thought. Shapes cut out of aluminium and then punctured with holes from head to toe. He wasn’t sure whether that said something about Berlin, or about Thornton, or if it said anything to anyone about anything.

He told himself to stop analysing, and as the Molecule Men grew closer, he placed his palms on the wall to his right and vaulted on to it, then sat, dangling his legs over the edge and above the sodden grass and sand that led to the canal.

Around half of the tapes were in his bag. Some were labelled with years, some with years and months, and others not at all, but he picked them out and lay them in what he could make of chronological order. He needed a timeline, needed to use the tapes to fill in the gaps that existed in Thornton’s biography, from his childhood in England to his move to Boston, from his war service to his move to Berlin. Most importantly, Faber had to discover why he chosen Berlin.

The first cassette buzzed in his ears as he pressed Play on the side of the Walkman. Charles Thornton’s voice was prefaced by a throat clearance and the squeak of new cotton on old leather. Faber glanced at the cassette sleeve again, printed on it the date “19__”. And then Thornton began to speak, and suddenly Faber saw the creases and folds of his skin move in tandem with the words, and the apartment block on Degarmo Strasse didn’t feel so empty any longer.

* * * * *

DLR likes writing for fun, and writing for money. He likes his dogs to have beards, and his bourbon to have poise. He is editor and cofounder of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, and his other Snake-Oil can be found here.

The Man in the Homburg Hat

The slender, box-shaped outline of a man appeared from behind a glass partition, and Faber recognised at once the figure of Marius Eichert. He did not know where the German had been waiting—the platform was a crush of asymmetric window panes and mobile flesh which had hidden him from view—but Faber’s attempt at raising his eyebrows in an ironic greeting only resulted in emphasising the creases in his forehead.

Marius extended his hand and Faber’s completed the handshake. “You arrived, Harry,” said the German with a grin. “Or was it Henry?” he added. Marius had clearly mastered sarcasm.

“You can call me Heinrich if you must,” replied Faber, reddening a little and marvelling at Marius’ easy manner. “But I probably won’t answer you.”

This inside joke was enough to relax the Englishman’s muscles. Marius, to no avail, persisted in harrying Faber about his reluctance to reveal his Christian name. The German affected a broad, vowel-heavy English accent as he led them between tourists, shoppers and the occasional punks with bright shocks of hair. “My dear Faber!” he said. He followed Marius past a staircase thronging with people and to an elevator that stood at the centre of the platform.

Faber had known Marius for two years. While still a first-year graduate student, Faber had been sitting at the library cafe when a tall, stubble-afflicted man in a leather bomber jacket and a Homburg hat approached him incautiously. Tipping the crumpled, bobble-covered felt from his head, the stranger had said in an accent almost Slavic: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth!” He had then tapped a long finger against the illustration in front of Faber and asked, “Sherlock Holmes, or…?” The accent, it transpired, had been German; the man in the Homburg hat had been Marius Eichert.

Without a hint of compunction he had tossed his hat aside and joined Faber. Effusing in broken sentences, he explained that his English had been sharpened by reading Conan Doyle’s stories, that he had fallen in love with the exotic Victorian milieu and with Holmes and Watson’s adventures, and that, finally, he had won a grant from his university in Germany allowing him to study in the UK. He regretted that he had not been accepted to a university in London—“the fog of Baker Street,” Faber had muttered at this juncture—but was glad that the detective story was of some interest even to Warwickshire’s academics.

Faber had shut the book and given the usual perfunctory explanation of his project. “Which writer?” Marius had asked.

“Charles Thornton,” Faber had replied, sealing their acquaintance and guaranteeing their friendship.

The elevator shunted more badly than the train. Descending towards the subways buried beneath the glass and steel station, Marius said: “We’ll take the U8 to my place. Kottbusser Tor is the station.” His English was now a hop away from perfect. In the two years since they had first met he had become increasingly more fluent and proportionally more garrulous when he spoke English; in his native tongue Marius was even harder to shut up. These were purely symptoms of confidence, and Faber envied them.

Exiting onto the U-Bahn platform, a subway car to their right was rolling to a stop. Marius gestured towards it and they stepped into the train only to be crushed against the opposite doorwell by a mismatched cadre of Berliners. Faber soon began to feel uncomfortable when Marius quizzed him in English.

“Well,” Faber replied. “Thornton doesn’t have an archive, as such. He left his belongings—letters, stories (if there are any), perhaps some recordings— .” He paused, assessing Marius’ reaction. Besides Stephen and Faber, few people knew about Thornton’s penchant for dictation. Even Denford Scholes hadn’t mentioned this goldmine in his biography. When Marius didn’t flinch, Faber continued: “He left his things in the hands of friends or relatives here in Germany. Hopefully—after a few German lessons—I’ll be able to make some headway on tracking them down.”

“German lessons? I’ll try,” Marius said wryly. “But I think teaching English is my strong suit.” Faber contemplated a reply but the train car had begun to shunt mechanically against the tracks and to bubble with the sound of an unfamiliar language.

At Kottbusser Tor they exited. The underground platforms were cheerless and poorly cared for but the turnover was greater at this station than at any they had passed through. A father and son tried to cram past Faber and his suitcase onto the subway car, while two doors down and with a guitar slung across his back, a short, Turkish Johnny Cash boarded and began his street performer spiel. Faber caught only a few words before the doors kissed shut and cut the performance short.

They took an escalator then a second set of stairs before emerging above ground. They were anonymous against the summer morning, and Faber found himself vaguely troubled by the small group of men (and the occasional woman) congregating around the U-Bahn who looked decidedly like homeless, drunk ex-punks. Marius reassured him and launched into an invective in perfectly-crafted English sentences (and, indeed, paragraphs) on Berlin’s ability to publicly confess to and reveal its seedy underbelly, unlike most urban sprawls.

Faber did not reply. He followed Marius beneath train tracks that ran overhead, then crossed the street and angled left onto Reichenberger Strasse. As they came to a door marked only by a series of buzzers on its left hand jamb, the German ended his monologue: “these people—alcoholics, drug addicts, punks, the homeless—they live on the surface of this city like a tattoo.”

₰    ₰    ₰

The gurgle of the coffee machine filled the apartment as though the kitchen were crying out in hunger. Verbose as he was, Marius had never been prone to small talk. As soon as Faber had set his luggage down in Marius’ office—Faber’s makeshift room for the duration—the German had dispensed with pleasantries by calling questions to him across the apartment—how long was he staying? How was his graduate project going? What were his plans in Berlin?—and following them up with a miniature monologue. He had finished a teaching qualification and was working at a school in Potsdam, he told Faber, teaching English classes and reading Conan Doyle with his students.

“So my dear Faber,” Marius said, taking a seat on the futon next to him. He smiled and handed Faber a cup of dark, murky brew. “What on earth can you be planning that requires an indefinite stay in Berlin?” He pronounced the word elaborately. “Mr. Thornton died in the ‘90s, right?”

Faber had grown weary and wary of expounding on his project at Warwickshire. Freed now from the constraints of teaching and the bane of research—they were not his strong suit—he felt renewed and sensed a new lightness to his voice. “He died here in 1997, of renal failure combined with a fatal bout of hypothermia. Little to nothing is known about those last few years, though. The years since reunification, since the Wall came down.”

“Yes. Well, it will take you all of a couple of hours to see the remains of the Berlin Wall,” Marius said, “but significantly longer to notice what was left behind after tearing it down.”

Faber sensed the beginning of another invective and turned quickly back to Thornton. “But his death isn’t what interests me most, Marius,” said Faber. “Berlin had been his home since the early ‘60s. He had been a success in America, had written two novels and countless short stories, even edited a handful of screenplays for MGM. So why, of all places, did he move to Germany? Why did he choose a city torn apart from war—a war he fought in—for his new home?”

Marius did what Faber couldn’t and contorted his face into a wry grin. Faber was aware of his tendency to speak in extended sentences, for parentheses to go on for so long that the point was lost amongst tangents, but the German clearly recognised and appreciated his investigative spirit. “It’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.”

As he pulled apart his luggage over the next half hour, Faber realised that Marius was right. From his suitcase he had picked out fresh clothes, deliberately setting the trunk of the bag against a wall so that he had a makeshift closet; delving into the pockets on the outside of the case he had removed and neatly stacked the cassette tapes beside the futon and then strewn his books across the couch itself, beneath the window looking onto Reichenberger Strasse. In this den, a foreign protectorate of Charles DeForest Thornton and of the past, of smoky rooms and conversations, Faber felt secure. He considered for a moment removing his laptop from its case, but he knew he could not bring himself to type out Stephen’s email address.

₰    ₰    ₰


Marius’ cigarillo twisted its ash into the air as they stood on the balcony. “Really you should be wearing the hat too, if you’re going to go all Bogart on me,” Faber said. The German smirked sideways, crooked teeth appearing beneath the filter in his mouth.

“I always preferred Cary Grant, actually,” he said. “So have you listened to the tapes yet?”

He was caught off guard. “Actually… no. I brought an old cassette player with me, but tuning out airports, planes and trains to listen to the old guy seemed like…”

“Sacrilege?” suggested Marius.

Faber nodded and wished that he knew more than ten words of German. In signs and speech he could find sufficient similarities with English to allow for some understanding, but when called upon to read any extended passages in his newly adopted language, he was lost among unfamiliar characters, confusion compounded by umlauts and deceptively long sentences.

Embers left a trace of the cigarillo’s descent as Marius let it drop to the grass below. After a moment of silence, he told Faber to wait right there and went back into the apartment. In thirty seconds he reappeared with two bottles of beer in one hand and a book in the other.

He passed one bottle to Faber before handing him the book. “C.D. Thornton?”

“For some reason either he or his publisher didn’t want to use the name Charles.” Marius pointed to the cover. “Das Mädchen Ohne LächelnThe Girl Who Lost Her Smile. Though it actually means ‘The Girl Without a Smile’.” A smirk floated back onto his lips. “We Germans love to be literal.”

Faber turned the book over. The back cover was empty but for the publisher’s logo. At the bottom of the page a stylised hand bearing a torch was set over words printed in small caps—Lichttrager Verlag. The German publishing house had snatched Thornton up as soon as it had become public knowledge that he had settled in Berlin. Denford Scholes had taken pains to present testimony from Lichttrager that supported this theory, supported it so avidly that Faber suspected that they had wished, retrospectively, to exaggerate their lucky catch.

“I thought you might like some bedtime reading,” Marius said, lighting another cigarillo. “You have tapes to listen to and books to read, my dear Faber. So I leave you to it.”

In the balmy summer air Faber felt obliged to finish his bottle of beer before retreating to his room. Marius’ balcony looked out onto a street filled with bicycles and boxes, trees shading the pavement and exterior walls of peeling paint and splashes of graffiti. A stretch of water which must, he thought, be a canal sparkled through the leaves of the treetops across the street. It was a peculiar juxtaposition, as though the greenery poked and curled up into the light in spite of the urban decay surrounding it.

As the glint of the water faded, he closed the balcony door and tossed the dregs of beer into the sink. Marius had deconstructed the couch into a bed and had fanned out Faber’s books across the flattened futon so carefully that Faber sensed sarcasm in the arc of pages and bindings. Beneath Scholes’ biography, a tome on detective fiction and his cheap, afterthought travel guide for Berlin were Thornton’s novels. He picked out The Girl Who Lost Her Smile and laid it open on the bed, setting beside it Das Mädchen Ohne Lächeln. Reading page for page and line by line, eventually, softly, like honey smearing from the end of a spoon, his eyes began to close.

* * * * *

“The Man in the Homburg Hat” is an excerpt from a novel in progress.

DLR likes writing for fun, and writing for money. He likes his dogs to have beards, and his bourbon to have poise. He is editor and cofounder of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, and his other Snake-Oil can be found here.

Exposure № 033: Walls

I lived in Berlin for a year. Walking the streets of that huge city, you come to realise that you can’t piece it together, you can’t build from individual images a cohesive panorama, and that any definitive statement about the place amounts to little more than a truism.

It is a place of division, of course, and of dichotomies. Saying that Berlin is not a coherent, complete city is, however, as much as truism as anything else. Metres from the shining glass and metal beams of the Sony Center are 19th Century buildings housing offices and cheaply rented apartments full of expatriates. Between the new and the old at Potsdamer Platz, wide streets and plazas of space signify what is now missing: for nearly 30 years, the Wall ploughed through the city.

Bornholmer Str. station, from Norweger Str.

The East is gentrified and gentrifying. EEJ wrote about one part of East Berlin on Monday. At the end of that year, I lived in Prenzlauer Berg, another part of the former East which exists so that the artistic waifs and former punks can marry (or not), have children, and move to a nicer area of the city with cheap living costs.

Leaving my apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, I turned left and then right onto Norweger Straße to walk to the train. To my right, short, blocky houses, refurbished but old. On the left, a three-foot wall obscured the train tracks and Bornholmer Straße station. The street that I walked on had also been the path of the former Berlin Wall. But in 2008, you could peer through a hole in the wall, see the platform staring back, and snap a photo of the West.

Slow exposure of Rosenthaler Platz

Rosenthaler Platz, though not on the path of the infamous Wall, was once home to the walls that surrounded Berlin. A series of gates, including one at Rosenthaler Platz, admitted traders and visitors into the city, and over the course of centuries, this square became heavily built up, housing large department stores and small businesses alike. On a slow exposure, the camera traces car headlights, the laylines of post-Unification Berlin, and the 20th Century facades that survive. Ubiquitous language schools, shops and cafes, and residential buildings still surround the square.

Camera: Canon EOS 300. Film: Ilford HP5

Exposure № 029: Tacheles

Tacheles, Berlin. This is the scene behind the former department store-turned squat cum artist’s co-op. This is far from a new story, but it bears telling anyway. After the Wall came down, artists and punks and all kinds of loveable vagrants fled – not away from the former East, but toward it, sniffing out deserted real estate and setting up utopian enclaves organized around loosely defined principles of freedom and independence and anti-establishment glee.  Tacheles isn’t unique in that respect. It is unique for the concentration of artists who set up workshops and actually produced art (as well as living in an almost performance-art style, not wholly private, not wholly public), but also for the nearly legitimate businesses that inhabited the space alongside the decidedly illegal residents – a cinema and a couple of cafes conducted business in the building that previously housed the department store.

Sadly Tacheles has lost its uniqueness as a squat that had survived gentrification. It was one of the last really well known squats standing until a few months ago when the owner of the real estate began making moves to uproot the inhabitants. This has been happening all over Berlin for years, but Tacheles seemed, to some, untouchable. Finally, the cafes and cinema up and left and eventually the city stepped in to help the owner of the property root out the artists and – with a touch of tragic irony – build a wall to keep them out.

This photo dates from January 2011, when Tacheles was still inhabited, though very quiet. Shot on 35mm Fuji Velvia 100 and cross-processed, which accounts for the rosy hue. Fitting, I thought.