This past winter, having heard good things about British author Philip Kerr, I read March Violets (1989), the first volume in his Berlin noir trilogy, set during the Nazi era and featuring Bernie Gunther, a cop and later PI in the tough, wise-cracking mold of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. I was impressed with the ease with which the author integrated a crime plot involving stolen jewels with the politics surrounding the lead-up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. How does an honest detective keep his integrity when he’s doing a job for Heinrich Himmler? Kerr brilliantly portrays what life was like in the early years of the Third Reich for everyone from high-ranking Nazis to their victims.
I followed March Violets with If the Dead Rise Not (2009), not a part of the Berlin trilogy, though the main action also concerns the 1936 Olympics. The last section takes Gunther to 1952 Cuba, where he gets in trouble with the local mob. The double twist at the end caught me by total surprise. One anachronism: a college-age female character is looking forward to attending Brown University, then all male. Why didn’t the U.S. editor change that to Pembroke?
More recently, I read the rest of the Berlin trilogy, The Pale Criminal (1990), about a serial killer of “Aryan” German girls, and A German Requiem (1991), which is set in 1947 Vienna, where Nazi war criminals are escaping prosecution amid rising tensions between Russian and American occupying forces. The way Gunther turns the tables in the final book on his old police boss, real-life Nazi Artur Nebe, is a treat.
This year’s Field Gray is perhaps the most harrowing installment yet. It opens in 1954 Cuba, where Gunther runs afoul of the U.S. Navy. Under interrogation, first in a New York City prison and later Germany’s Landsberg Prison, Gunther fills in the gaps in his past not covered in previous books, including his mercifully brief experience as a member of an SS police battalion on the Eastern front; his extended time as a POW in the Soviet Union after the war; and his efforts in 1940 France to locate Erich Mielke, the future East German spy master, wanted for the 1931 murder of two Berlin police officers. Once again, the ending caught me completely off-guard, if only because I wasn’t used to thinking of Americans as bad guys.