Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr

I worried about starting this one, as it’s a trilogy of books in one volume. Could I really handle reading three detective novels set in Nazi Germany back to back to back? Turns out, I wanted to tear through three in a row, because Kerr’s writing is so evocative. I had to keep checking that these were written recently and weren’t actually from the period. Kerr’s writing is full of hard-boiled slang, guns are “lighters,” cigarettes are “nails,” and those are some of the easy ones. Take this exchange from the first book, The March Violets, for example:

“First you plum the man with all that smart talk, and now you want to play the black horse. Pay the bastard”
“Look, if I don’t black horse him a little and drag my heels over paying him that kind of mouse, then he’ll figure I’m worth a lot more.”

It took me most of the first book to acclimate to the language, and the plot was rather convoluted, so I had a tendency to lose the thread from night to night, but I didn’t care because the characters and writing were so good I just did the reading equivalent of “smile and nod,” and followed along hoping I’d catch up again. The books are told from the point of view of Bernie Gunther, an ex-policeman in Berlin who chose to become a private eye rather than join the National Socialist Party. The first book, The March Violets, takes place during the Berlin Olympic games, and includes perfect details like SA officers removing anti-Semitic posters from display so as not to upset foreign visitors for the games. Gunther is hired by an industrialist to solve the murder of his daughter and son in law. The case twists in innumerable ways, involving blackmail of Party members, the criminal underground, mistaken identity, torture, and even has time for a romance. It is dark and violent, but worth it. I’m a good British girl, my father and aunts were evacuated from the UK to the US during the war to save them from being raised as Nazis if the Germans succeeded in invading Britain. And I grew up in US schools, so my view of the Germans in WWII was always pretty critical. When traveling through Europe during college, I happily quoted my cousin, “Why would you want to go to Germany? It’s full of Germans.” But as I’ve gotten older and learned more about what led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, I’ve found it much more nuanced and full of shades of grey. Even though Kerr is a modern writer, he captures the time and feel of this time in Germany, what people on the street were experiencing under Hitler’s rise in power.

The second book, The Pale Criminal, takes place in the summer of 1938. Gunther is recruited back to the Krippo, the Berlin Criminal Police, to help solve a series of killings of young women, perfect models of the Aryan race, that point to a serial killer on the lose. They want him back because he had been instrumental in catching a serial killer in the past. They have someone in custody who has “confessed” to the crime, but another was committed while the suspect was in jail. Gunther reluctantly goes back, getting a higher rank than the one he had when he left, and some autonomy to conduct the investigation as he sees fit. The police are hesitant to publicize the killings, as it could prevent further abductions of young girls but it could also spark riots as the killings follow a spurious method described as a Jewish “ritual” killing in anti-Semitic literature. Gunther is tasked to find the real killer, and fast, before there is panic in the streets or any more girls disappear. Again, the story winds through segments of Berlin society, from the SS officers enthralled with the occult, to closeted homosexual life in the city. As Gunther is having to work within a system he disagrees with, there is much friction between him and his superiors, and even between him and those working on his level. I don’t know whether it was a simpler story, or that I had gotten used to Kerr’s writing by this one, but I found it easier to follow.

The third book, A German Requiem, is set after the war, 1947, with Berlin patrolled by Russian soldiers. I never learned in school that the Russians basically raped their way across Germany after the defeat, and while Kerr has some Russian characters who display intelligence and cunning, he is very harsh on their methods, and clear on the brutality they enjoy inflicting on the locals under their control. Gunther is back in Berlin, after a stint as a Russian prisoner of war. He chose to go to the eastern front rather than work with the SS rounding up Jews, Communists, and others deemed un-German. He’s married, and his wife works at an American PX and is able to sneak food home for herself and Gunther. He’s approached by a Russian intelligence officer to take a case trying to prove the innocence of a former friend from the Kripo who is under arrest for killing an American soldier in Vienna. Gunther takes the case, in part because he learns what his wife has been doing to procure those extra rations. He is sent to Vienna by the Russian, with a cover story of dealing in cigarettes. He has to navigate with the Americans, the Austrians, and the Russians, who all want something from him and who would all be willing to let him die if it would be convenient. I’m still not sure what the exact difference is between a chocolady and a prostitute, but I am clear that any woman who fell into such a life after the war is never to be judged for doing it if it meant the difference between death and meager survival. This book is more of an espionage thriller than straight detective novel, with the various factions crossing and double crossing each other. There are a couple scenes of graphic violence and torture, not for the faint of heart. They add to the feeling of fear and doom hanging over these people, the dread that they could be rounded up at any time on the thinnest of charges and put to death.

I enjoyed Kerr’s books, and plan on reading more as soon as I can clear up the odd block on my library card. For those already fans of Kerr’s works, I recommend J. Robert Jane’s series about the team of St-Cyr of the Surete and Kohler of the Gestapo, investigating murders in occupied Paris. Janes’ writing can get convoluted at times, but the series is a brilliant and fascinating look at a time and place most of us know little about. It dwells in the grey areas of life, the little concessions you have to make to achieve a better good. It’s the kind of series ripe for adaptation by the BBC/PBS.


June 6, 2010. Tags: . Books.

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