Somewhere in the middle of my spring Harry Potter extravaganza, I took a short break and headed toward a grittier and more realist path: that of Bernie Gunther, of the Berlin trilogy’s fame.
In “If the Dead Rise Not”, the Cuban wandering of Bernie Gunther had failed to entirely convince me and I had looked forward to returning to Europe. It’s just as if Philip Kerr had heard me.
In this new episode, it’s 1954 and Bernie leaves Cuba by boat, only to be intercepted by the Americans and promptly sent to Guantanamo to be interrogated by the CIA. The CIA want him to go back to Germany and unmask someone on their behalf. It’s Cold War time, but it’s also time Bernie Gunther faces some of his demons and talks about the wartime events.
There were mentions in earlier books about his time spent in Russia as a prisoner of war, and I quite “enjoyed” this part. Bernie Gunther, from the beginning, is a character that tries to work and remain both ethical and professional in a world that is anything but. Stuck between being seen as a criminal of war by both his Communists jailers and American CIA agents, and as a traitor by SS members who all think of escaping to Latin America, he has to tread a fine line just to stay alive. He’s cynical and a bit of a Chandler hero but he has much less freedom in what he does, because of the country and era he lives in. He has to deal with his conscience but still get a living in the Nazi society, which gets increasingly difficult when the country goes to war and when he gets drafted and has no choice but to wear the SS uniform, because Heydrich wants Gunther to work for him.
There’s an awful lot of back and forth between times and countries in this book, and I had the feeling that Kerr tried to force the dual-timelines plot too much. The chapters I was more comfortable with were certainly the ones set in the past, but I guess Kerr has to somehow follow the logic of his previous books, moving forward into the 1950s, and that indeed becomes increasingly difficult.
At the same time I was reading this book, I listened to the BBC adaptation of Robert Harris’ Fatherland. Comparing both, Fatherland felt creepier because of the hypothesis that the Nazis had won the war and that the nightmare wasn’t, well, over in some way. Kerr also show us the continuity between the wartime crimes and the postwar era where criminals are still around, just trying to quietly get on with their lives (which is creepy in its own way). I still found Gunther a more interesting character because of his moral quandary and evolution (rather than the more traditional naive hero who becomes aware of evil around him).
I’ll probably buy the next book in the series for one of those cold and bleak winter evenings coming ahead…