I like historical fiction (Flashman, The Eagle in the Snow) when it is well done and I like hard boiled noir detective novels (Hammet, Chandler). The Bernie Gunther stories by Philip Kerr tick both boxes quite nicely.
Berlin Noir contains the first three novels featuring Bernie Gunther, a Berlin detective in pre and post-war Germany. In the first novel, March Violets, Bernie is a private detective in 1936. He had been on the Berlin police force as a detective, but his open disdain for the Nazi goverment forced his retirement. Now he is making a living looking for missing persons, of which there are a lot under the new Nazi regime. Like all hard boiled fiction protagonists, Bernie is the moral man struggling to stay alive in a dark, immoral world. The case, which begins as a search for some missing jewels takes him into the Byzantine court politics of the Nazi regime and the hellish depths of a concentration camp.
In the second novel, The Pale Criminal, Bernie is coerced back into the KRIPO (the plain clothes detective branch of the police), to lead the investigation into a serial killer. Once again Nazi Party political infighting is involved and he has to be careful in order to both bring such justice as he can and still stay alive. But the growing nagging doubts about the mess Germany has gotten into and how they all stood by and let the thugs and gangsters take control, come to fruition on the morning after the Krystalnacht. The autumn clean up of fallen leaves becomes a harbinger of the coming Holocaust for the Jews and he fears the rest of Germany as well.
The pale autumn sky was filled with the exodus of millions of leaves, deported by the wind to distant corners of the city, away from the branches which had once given life. Here and there, stone-faced men worked with slow concentration to control this arboreal diaspora, burning the dead from ash, oak, elm, beech, sycamore, maple, horse-chestnut, lime and weeping-willow, the acrid grey smoke hanging in the air like the last breath of lost souls. But always there were more, and more still, so that the burning middens seemed never to grow smaller, and as I stood and watched the glowing embers of the fires, and breathed the hot gas of deciduous death, it seemed to me that I could taste the very end of everything.
In the third novel A German Requiem, it is 1947. Bernie is home from a Soviet POW camp and trying to scrape out a living once again as a PI in an occupied and shattered Berlin. An old colleague from his days in the KRIPO is accused of murdering an American officer in Vienna and Bernie is hired to prove his innocence. Once again Bernie is caught in a murky world of black marketeers, cold war spies and war criminals trying to hide their pasts as American and Soviet spy-masters try their best to use him as a pawn. The Orson Welles classic The Third Man, set in post war Vienna, even gets a tangential nod.
Well written, with intriguing plot twists and compelling mysteries, these novels feature a flawed yet very human and sympathetic character and well crafted prose.
Kerr has continued the series with more mysteries that take Bernie into the world of exiled Nazis living in 1950s Argentina and working for the American rocket program.
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