The One with Bernie in the Balkans

Philip Kerr, The Lady from Zagreb (2015)

When we decided to go to Berlin in the summer, I wanted to read a book set in Berlin, and what better than the next installment of the Bernie Gunther series set in Berlin under the Nazi regime. Since I had this book on my Kindle for a while, it fitted my Unreadshelf challenge too (I like to kill the proverbial two birds whenever I can!)

The book is set mainly in 1943, with the first and last chapters set ten years later on the French Riviera, which is famous for glamorous hotels and movie stars. Bernie gets to remember his own close encounter with Dalia Dresner, a (fictitious) movie star during the war. How a lowly policeman got to approach “Germany’s own Garbo”? His newest master Goebbels needed him to convince the lady to play in the next Nazi blockbuster he’s planning. She shares her time between Berlin and Switzerland (a neutral country stuck between Germany and Italy) where her husband lives, but she evidently has a pretty independent view of who she takes to her bed. Because Dalia is from the Balkans and she wants to reconnect with her father, Bernie Gunther is supposed to go there with a letter and bring her back her father’s answer.

The movie star character is evidently inspired by Heddy Lamar, who was a stunning beauty but also interested in science and technology. I found the pretext to make Bernie travel rather weak, but I was interested to learn about Switzerland during wartime, as I knew it was a hotbed of spies (and I’d read another book set in Switzerland partly in the same period). Of the Balkans themselves I was not eager for details, because I know they might be more than gruesome, and I had the feeling that Kerr did tread carefully too. I remember well enough the terrible Balkans wars in the 1990s and it was already explained that some bad feelings ran between Serbs and Croatians and Bosnians because of horrific massacres during WW2.

There was also a bit of meta fun in the person of a Swiss crime writer who is looking for advice and anecdotes from Bernie and how to write a successful mystery.

It’s probably not the best episode on the Bernie Gunther series, definitely not the one to start with, but it was fun enough for me as I walked through Berlin neighborhoods and was reminded of so many street names. I walked by Fasanenstrasse where he’s supposed to live but found it far too posh nowadays to be believable (when I was in middle school I was an intense Sherlock Holmes fan and I’d started writing a fan fiction – the word didn’t exist back then – where the detective lived on a small London Street called… Oxford Street… needless to say I’d never been there and had only pickled up the name from a city map…). Of course we also went to Alexanderplatz where the police building was (really).

Part of the fun of the Bernie Gunther series is the mix between historical facts and fiction. Berlin is a city where history, facts and fiction readily mix together, so it was a great choice. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, but I have to pace myself now that I know there’s a limited number of books left (sigh).

The one to read with a Russian map, a history book and a strong drink

Philip Kerr, The Man without Breath (2013)

This one is not for the faint-hearted, but if you have followed Bernie Gunther’s adventures so far (this is, gasp, the ninth book!), you’ll know what to expect: noir, noir, and more noir. There are times where you actually seek out the darker side of the mirror and want to send Polyanna back to La-la-land with marshmallows. Bernie Gunther is the ideal hero for these ventures into historical nightmares.

This book is set in 1943. Things are not turning out very well for the Nazis on the Eastern Front. This is the place to avoid at all costs if you’re lucky enough not to be a soldier, and Bernie Gunther has found the weirdest job possible, working as an investigator for the Wehrmacht War Crime bureau. Apparently such a Bureau existed in real life and wasn’t overly preoccupied with the Nazis’ exaction against civilians, Jews, Communists and other people who kept disappearing overnight. No, the purpose of this Bureau was to address military indiscipline within the army and trying to show that the Soviet army did commit even worse crimes than the German.

Enter the Katyn massacre, where thousands of Polish officers have been slain in a wood near Smolensk (midway between Moscow and Minsk) and left in shallow graves. Nobody local is speaking, but the Germans are glad to finally hold the proof that the Soviets are worse than themselves. They’re also aware that they need to publicize this crime very soon, because when the Soviet troops will recover this territory (people on the front line at that time don’t delude themselves about Nazi victory), they’ll likely accuse the Germans of having committed the execution themselves. Proving that the Soviets committed it, on the other hand, is likely to break the alliance between Western countries and the USSR. I guess this war crime is the height of surreal cynicism between two totalitarian regimes, and the worst part of the novel is to know that Philip Kerr is inspired by real facts and a lot of research.

As if there wasn’t enough darkness in the novel, there’s also a few other murders and a proper investigation and mystery that is solved swiftly with a bow at the end. This part is not as interesting as the historical backdrop and the struggle for Bernie to keep his integrity in a rapidly decadent landscape. But I’ll still read anything in this series, provided I’m in the right mood.

Philip Kerr, Prague Fatale (2011)

I’m a sucker for Bernie Gunther thrillers (my reviews are here to prove it). By exception to my own habits, I am reading them (nearly) in order, so I already have the next one lined up (A Man without breath), except I might at least wait until fall or winter, not to go on a Gunther binge.

I can’t decently tell you much about the plot, because the whole pleasure lies in the twists and surprises and the clever cliffhangers. Let’s just say that Gunther is summoned to Prague by his old boss, Heydrich, who can’t be refused anything as he’s now the governor of Bohemia and Moravia (part of the Nazi Reich, as the book is set in 1941). Soon enough a dead body turns up, except it’s not one from the mass murders of Jews, nor any dead soldier on the Russian front, nor a Czech resistance fighter. The murder takes place inside a closed room in Heydrich’s villa, making several tongue-in-cheek references to Agatha Christie’s classic mysteries. But instead of Miss Marple, Bernie Gunther gets to ask the questions, and of course he doesn’t do it politely around a dainty cup of tea (certainly rationed by this time).

Part of the pleasure (?) of reading a Philip Kerr thriller is to be immersed in the day-to-day life of Germans under the Nazi regime. We’re inside Bernie Gunther’s head (with some insight, because he’s telling it from the future), so the core question is to see how a moral individual (assuming we choose to believe that Gunther is sincere about his democratic, liberal sympathies) could live (read: stay alive) in a totalitarian state. The result is not black and white, and many of Gunther’s choices are dark grey, because he’s not heroic to the point of being suicidal.

I didn’t want to just gulp down the story and move on. After all, I have been reading many books related to this period lately, so I checked on the only reference I keep at home about Nazism: Ian Kershaw’s opus: Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (1985), a book far too deep and theoretical for me to read from cover to cover. Instead, I read the chapter on German society together with Kerr, and it proved fascinating.

Kershaw highlights the work of Martin Broszat in his Bavaria Project, where (from my understanding) a bunch of historians went through lots of data about the daily lives and opinions of people, to see if they adhered to Nazism, and how much they dared to dissent (cue: very little). He stresses that a lot of people weren’t hard-core Nazi, but rather helpless and subdued, or even indifferent. The extent of their dissent was largely minimalist, and in many cases they were rather passive accomplices.

Gunther rather embodies this helplessness, as he can sometimes find solutions to avoid some situations (like killing civilians or framing a suspect for the sake of Nazi politics), but he is a cop (and a soldier sometimes), and there’s no way he remains pure and innocent all the way through. He may bend some rules, but he’s a flawed anti-hero. Which makes his story all the more interesting.

Philip Kerr, Field Gray (2010)

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…

Philip Kerr, If The Dead Rise Not (2009)

It’s my second encounter with Bernie Gunther in a few months’ time after a 10+ years break since I’d read the Berlin trilogy. Let me be short and to the point: although it was entertaining enough, it didn’t quite measure up to its predecessor, The One from the Other, that was focused on the immediate post-war and war criminals. Here Bernie is further away from his “base” and his wise-cracking manners à la Marlowe seem less original.

The book is structured in two parts: one in 1934 (and not 1936 as the cover mistakenly implies) when Bernie Gunther, freshly out of the police force because he wouldn’t join the Nazi party, has found a job as a hotel detective at the luxury Adlon hotel; and the second in Cuba twenty years later, where Bernie under his new identity of Carlos Hausner meets again with some protagonists of the first part.

The plot revolves around American gangsters ties to the Olympic games tenders, and the Nazi contradictions and corruptions, and how gangsters have found another calling in pre-Castro Cuba casino business. It’s interesting to see how all have evolved (or not) in the new world, but for 1950s-1960s hard-boiled set in America I’d rather take a James Ellroy book.

That said, Kerr still has the right recipe to make you turn pages without taking a breath. Research for both periods are so great you feel like you’re there, and I still laugh out loud at Gunther’s slangy expressions.

I’ve skipped A Quiet Flame, the novel that was set just right after The One from the Other and before this one, as it was set in Peronist Argentina and I didn’t seem to care so much. I look forward another episode that would bring Bernie back to his European past.

Philip Kerr, The One from the Other (2006)

I bought this book in May in Berlin and although the novel is set mainly in Munich, it seemed quite appropriate for me to buy a Kerr novel there. Let me tell you about this first.

I read his Berlin Noir trilogy a good fifteen years ago (back when no internet existed to record my reading) and I was so impressed that it “colored” my mental vision of the city (other preconceptions I had about Berlin came from Christopher Isherwood and the movie Cabaret, and Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz). So of course my first days in the German capital were all about trying to reconcile my own private historical and fictional idea of the city with its actual contemporary life, its cafés and shops, throngs of tourists and dwellers. Not so easy. The few first days I was really unsettled and found the city surprisingly uptight (not so surprising when you think of Germany in general, but more surprising when you hear Berlin’s reputation of laidback cool), but the third day I realized that I was the one being uptight, and so I relaxed and enjoyed it a lot more. Of course, Berlin is a lot less “noir” and a lot more fun in life than in fiction.

Coming back to Kerr, I guess my impression of his trilogy has been quite memorable to me because he managed to show how life went on under Nazi rule, using fiction, without a focus on Jewish persecutions and/or the war itself. He didn’t hide these facts or minimize them but on the contrary inserted them in ordinary life. As a matter of fact a lot of people if they weren’t Jewish or Communist did get on with it as if nothing much happened. Crime still occurred under Nazi regime for the usual motives of money, jealousy, revenge. It made the persecutions and terror more real and more disturbing by showing them in life ordinariness, as lawlessness and arbitrary disturbed the logical flow of a traditional investigation.

The One from the Other is set in 1949 while Germany is busy rebuilding itself and trying to face its not-so-distant past… or not. Cities are still in ruins but already construction sites show a promising future. A lot of people are ready to turn the page and forget. A lot of people are still unaccounted for, Jews of course but also war criminals who have gone into hiding to escape American war tribunals, Soviet summary justice or Israeli execution squads. There are opportunities to start anew, for bad guys and good guys alike.

A private detective like Bernie Gunther, freshly widowed and a survivor of the war, gets a good deal of business opportunities in this context. He’s a cynical big mouth à la Marlowe, always getting in murky situations where there’s much to lose and little to gain. He’s definitely a good, moral guy, but he has his share of ambiguities. He has grown since we last heard of him in the trilogy and his recent past in the war has taken its toll.

When he sets up shop in Munich, there’s no shortage of clients, but asking questions is dangerous in post-war Germany. Soon enough he’s embarked into a complicated plot that put his life at risk. Germans are seen by many as expendable in the new Cold War, and some Americans are not looking twice when it comes to choosing between ex-Nazis and Communists. Few people are who they present themselves. The numerous twists and turns guarantees a breathless pace and a riveting tension, all the more when Kerr peppers it with a lot of research and details.

The only drawback to reading such a book is that it puts you in a melancholy, slightly paranoid mood. Noir mysteries are like a good coffee: strong, dark, bitter with a long aftertaste. And it gives you a good jolt.