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Book Review: Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr

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Why would a critic in 2007 suggest that a potential bookworm return to the early ‘90s for his or her pleasure reading? There are two reasons. The first reason is Philip Kerr’s 2006 The One From the Other. After a publication hiatus of 15 years and a literary one of two, Berlin private investigator Bernard Gunther returned to fresh pages in a hard-boiled tale more tragic, gritty, and aromatic than any Sam Spade tome. At the end of The One From the Other we find Gunther, in 1949, forced to leave his homeland because of some postwar reconstruction chicanery. But that book revealed that Gunther had quite the history in prewar Berlin. Gunter had been a Kriminalinspektor with the Kriminalpolizei (KRIPO), was subsequently forced into the SS (never having joined the National Socialists) when Hitler came to power, at which time he leaves KRIPO to start a private investigation business.

The second reason is writing like this:

    By now I had realized that Hildegard Steininger was about as self-contained as a fountain-pen, and I figured that she probably preferred the kind of man who could think of himself as little more than a blank sheet of writing paper. And yet, almost in spite of her, I continued to find her attractive. For my taste, she was too much concerned with the shade of her gold-spun hair, the length of her fingernails and the state of her teeth, which she was forever brushing. Too vain by half, and too selfish twice over. Given a choice between pleasing herself and pleasing someone else she would have hoped that pleasing herself would have made everyone happy. That she would have thought that one would almost certainly result from the other was for her as simple a reaction as a knee jerking under a patella-hammer.

    –from The Pale Criminal

The previous history of Bernard Gunther is detailed in three novels written between 1989 and 1991 comprising Kerr’s “Berlin Trilogy” and collected under the 1993 title Berlin Noir. These three novels were March Violets (1989), The Pale Criminal (1990), and A German Requiem (1991). The scene is pre- and post-World War II Berlin and the surrounding climes. The backdrop is one long yarn of horror beginning with the high-water mark of National Socialism and ending with the bleak allied occupation and reconstruction.

The title March Violets is an allusion to those Germans coming late (out of personal necessity) to the call of National Socialism. What Kerr does is inject intravenously the hard-boiled noir of Sam Spade into 1936 Berlin at the height of the grimy National Socialist success. Kerr captures this morally-absent backdrop very effectively. Bernhard Gunther is a private detective who specializes in missing person cases. Gunther is retained by a wealthy German industrialist, Hermann Six, to investigate the arson murder of his daughter and son-in-law and the theft of some priceless jewelry.

Bernard Gunther is rapidly assimilated into a major conspiracy involving two highly placed Nazis, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering and Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. The case submerges Gunther at once into the Berlin super- and sub-cultures. Noisy cabarets; Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympic games; the bed of a famous actress; and the Dachau concentration camp all figure large in Gunther’s search. He has a talent for being beaten and issuing beatings when necessary. The environment is corrupt and militarily decadent, one in which Gunther becomes a pawn in order to save his own life. The story is complex and not completely resolved in the end. The tone is brutal with all life very cheap in the pre-war years.

The Pale Criminal is heads and shoulders a better novel than March Violets, while the latter was not truly bad. The title is derived from Nietzsche’s Thus spake Zarathustra: “Ye do not mean to slay, ye judges and sacrificers, until the animal hath bowed its head? Lo! the pale criminal hath bowed his head: out of his eye speaketh the great contempt.”

The scene is two years later than March Violets. SS-Gruppenführer Arthur Nebe, the head of Gunther’s old employer, the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo), has an audience with Gunther in the middle of the night. It seems that SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich believes Gunther would be politically useful to him. Gunther was again part of Kripo. Shortly before his meeting with Nebe, Gunther is retained by a certain Frau Lange, who is being blackmailed by an unknown party. In the process, Gunther’s partner is murdered and the man blackmailing Lange allegedly commits suicide.

Interrupting his case with Lange, Gunther is asked to return to Kripo by Heydrich (who in March Violets sent Gunther to Dachau) to investigate the deaths of several young German girls. Through a series of clever ties, the two cases become one, involving the ultimate embarrassment of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, who is peripherally involved in the girl’s disappearance, by Heydrich. There is no love lost between the two Nazis. The book has everything to endorse it: a beginning, middle, and end, and the association between the three is tidily resolved.

A German Requiem has a very different backdrop than the first two-thirds of this trilogy. The year is 1947 and Berlin remains in ruins, partitioned between the victorious allies. The British, Americans, French, and Russians are bureaucratic and corrupt in their own special ways. But it is the Russians (“Ivans”) for whom Gunther reserves his greatest hatred. Kerr depicts his typical Russian as a dirty illiterate peasant, mindlessly brutal and effortlessly cruel. That is the majority. He also addresses the Russian aristocracy, and provides the character of the Russian Col. Palkovich Poroshin, an officer who approaches Gunther to help prove the innocence of one German war criminal-turned black marketeer Emil Becker in the murder of U.S. Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) Capt. Edward Linden.

Gunther leaves his philandering wife, Kirsten, in Berlin and heads to Vienna, where Becker is being held. Becker claims that he has been framed while delivering SS files to Linden at the request of the mysterious Konig. Gunther’s search for this mystery man draws the attention of the ostensible CIC operative John Belinksky, who also believes Becker was set up for this fall. Belinksky spends a bit of time saving an apparently hapless Gunther from various bad fates. In the story, Gunther encounters ghosts, one in former Kripo head Arthur Nebe, presumably executed in the wake of the attempt on Hitler’s life, and former Gestapo head Heinrich Muller, last seen outside of Hitler’s bunker on that fateful day at the end of April 1945.

Tracking down these people and working as an operative, Gunther is sucked into a complex vortex plot and subplots that have become Kerr’s standard in his series, which continues with the recently published book.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...
  • Jeff Ex-Berliner

    I agree with everything said in this review, but them I am biased: I love Berlin, having lived there for many years, and I am fluent in German. The novels are interesting to me for reasons over and above the story line. First of all, the geography of Philip Kerr’s Berlin is uncannily accurate. Every place mentioned evokes an image and an atmosphere. To a reader familiar with Berlin, this adds an additional level of interest. Second, the language of the novels is different from any story set in Germany that I have read. Most of his colloquialisms are translated literally from German and ring accurate to me, but may sound odd to a reader unfamiliar with the German spoken in Berlin. At times, the book reads like a translation out of the original German, but with some of the language transliterated rather than translated. Setting a detective story against the backdrop of Nazi Germany allows a rich new set of situations in which to set the action. These stories ring very true and it is easy to imagine that they are drawn from actual events. Highly recommended.