Sunday, June 12, 2005

Berlin Noir: a review.

In the bookstore to pick up a copy of Alan Furst's latest, I found this Phillip Kerr's Berlin Noir, a trilogy of noir mysteries whose protaganist is Bernhard Gunther, a private investigator who left the Berlin police as the Nazi party took control. The first novel, March Violets, is set in 1936, and Gunther is retained by an industrialist to retrieve a stolen diamond necklace. I don't think I'm giving much away if I say that the investigation leads him into struggles between Nazi factions. The second, The Pale Criminal, is set two years later, and finds Gunther recalled to law enforcement by Reinhard Heydrich to the solve a string of murders of teenage girls. Here again, Gunther's investigation soon places him amidst political intrigue. The third, A German Requiem, finds Gunther summoned to Vienna in 1947 to assist with the defense of a pre-war colleague on trial for the murder of an American officer. By now, the reader is not surprised when the case proves to be the only the tip of an iceberg.

Like Furst's novels, Kerr does a wonderful job of conveying the sense of time and place. As some of Furst's earlier novels did with the Soviet Union, the first two novels play on the factional intrigue within Germany, and the latter comes as the wartime Allies shift into the Cold War. The noir style is an excellent fit for the corruption of Nazi Germany, and the lawlessness of postwar Vienna.

If I may quibble -- and it is just that -- while reading the trilogy, it is sometimes too hard to suppress one's knowledge of what is to come, especially for Germany's Jews, whose plight is a theme throughout the trilogy. Gunther's thoughts about what is happening to the Jews have a tinge of hindsight to them. One sees Kerr mastering this theme over the course of the trilogy: In March Violets, it seems a little forced; in The Pale Criminal, less so, as Kerr does a better job of integrating it into the plot; and in A German Requiem, set after Nazi crimes have been exposed, Gunther's consciousness is entirely appropriate.

I think I saw that Kerr was one of Granta's best young English novelists some years back, and I enjoyed his writing quite a bit. Recommended, especially to you Furst fans.

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