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After I first made Bernie Gunther's acquaintance in the BERLIN NOIR trilogy, I remember closing the cover with mixed emotions. The three novels it comprises struck me as an inventive and original contribution to the genre in the way Kerr approached both the historical material and the noir conventions. But most of all, it was Bernie himself -that smart-mouthed, morally elusive survivor - who most impressed. So I was very sorry to see what appeared to be the back of him at the end of A GERMAN REQUIEM.
And he was gone for quite a while. It was fifteen years before he resurfaced in THE ONE FROM THE OTHER, but once back, he couldn't stay away. Now Kerr has provided us with definitive bookends in Gunther's remarkable saga.
The book is divided into two parts of unequal length. The first and longer is set in Berlin in 1934, when the Nazis are still consolidating power and still a bit worried that the international community will interfere with their plans for world domination. Germany has been awarded the Olympic Games for 1936, but widespread concern about the exclusion of Jews from the Games and a threatened boycott threatens Hitler's dream of triumph. (Perhaps it is as well to remind present readers of the circumstances surrounding these games, as an official video for the recent Olympics in Vancouver featured clips from Leni Riefenstahl's OLYMPIA. It had to be withdrawn.)
The (actual) head of the US Olympic committee, Avery Brundage, is in town to investigate the charges of anti-Semitism. Oddly he can find no evidence of it, despite the signs in every gym prohibiting Jews from entering. Perhaps it is a problem of language, or perhaps his firm's successful bid to build the German embassy in Washington obscures his vision. Meanwhile, Jews who are excluded from participating in the Games are being used illegally to perform very dangerous construction work on the Olympic stadium. They don't have a lot of choice, since most other jobs are barred to them.
Also in town is Noreen Charalambides, a journalist and a Jew, who is anxious to encourage a US boycott of the Games if at all possible. She enlists the aid of Bernie Gunther, ex-cop, now house detective at the upscale Adlon Hotel, to help her get the facts for a story that will compel attention.
The Bernie we see here pre-dates the character in MARCH VIOLETS by a couple of years and Kerr presents a marvellously young and dangerously smart-mouthed noir detective who cynically observes the new Nazi regime from a detached position, a place he will not be able to occupy forever. He is young enough still to fall in love and does, with Noreen. But despite what she may come to think, he is no "knight of heaven." Something in him may pull him in that direction, but his highly developed instinct for self-preservation and his detached cynicism will ensure that he does what he must to get out of trouble. Just as well - "knights of heaven" did not last long in the Third Reich.
The second part of the book is set twenty years later, in Havana, where Bernie has moved when he ceased to be safe in Argentina (A QUIET FLAME). The primary cast from part one is reunited - Noreen, now the mother of a teen-aged daughter; Max Reles, the American gangster who'd been in Berlin to profit from the Olympic contracts; and of course Bernie himself, older, perhaps wiser, sadder, and far less ready to crack wise. Batista is in nominal control, but the American Mafia is running things and the excesses of Havana nightlife make Weimar Berlin look restrained, almost prudish. This is familiar ground for Bernie, one he would just as soon stay well away from, but his feelings for Noreen resurface and he is drawn back into events in a brilliantly conceived and executed plot that could wreck any hope he may have had for a quiet life.
It is hard to marshal a sufficient number of superlatives to describe this book. As a noir character, Gunther is up there with the best of the thirties detectives - Sam Spade, the Continental Op or any other you may care to name and not as pastiche. The period in Germany history justifies the noir attitude far better than even the Depression in the United States. The interplay of historical event and character is superbly done and the passage of time beautifully invoked. Readers new to the series need have no fear about beginning here - Kerr effortlessly tells us all we need to know about Gunther and his world and, even better, requires us to participate in the imaginative reconstruction of both.
Really, words fail me. Just read this one. I doubt you'll find a better this year. My only reservation is that this may indeed represent Bernie Gunther's swan song. I hope not, but it's hard to imagine how Philip Kerr can improve on this version of Bernie's life and times.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2010
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Contact: Yvonne Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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