Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Review: "Berlin Noir" by Philip Kerr

Berlin Noir (1993)
Philip Kerr (1956- )

836 pages

Is there a more fertile ground for a mystery writer than central Europe in the mid-20th century? The environment of secrecy and violence that existed in Germany in the 1930’s as the Nazi’s gained control of the government and then consolidated their power; the chaos of World War II as fighting raged on multiple fronts across the continent; and the cold war spy games that flourished as the wartime alliances broke down.

At the center of this “huge cauldron in which all historical eras [were] boiling and mingling” (to borrow from Octavio Paz) lay, both literally and figuratively, Berlin. The seat of Nazi power up to and through World War II, it also became a focal point for the machinations of the former allies as they suddenly turned into adversaries fighting to control the future of Europe.

A variety of writers have set their novels in this “cauldron,” and among them is Philip Kerr. In the novel March Violets, Kerr introduced his fictional detective Bernhard (Bernie) Gunther, and Gunther has returned in several subsequent novels by Kerr, the first three of which (in addition to March Violets, these include The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem) have since been collected into a single title, Berlin Noir.

Not content to simply play off the obvious advantages of a mid-20th century, central European setting for his detective novels, Kerr actively and plausibly engages Gunther with several high ranking Nazi political and security officials. Some will be familiar to readers with even a passing knowledge of the history of those times (such as Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler), while others are less well-known (Reinhard Heydrich, Arthur Nebe and the leader of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller). By involving Gunther directly with the events and personalities of the day, Kerr gives the novels several layers of meaning for readers. On one level the stories stand alone as action-packed thrillers that are difficult to put down. But for readers who are interested in the historical background, the novels also provide a fascinating window into the world of that period through the eyes of Gunther as he navigates daily life in 1930’s and 1940’s Berlin and deals with some of the architects and effects of Nazi policy.

Kerr introduces Gunther as having become a private detective after serving for years as a policeman in Berlin. By the beginning of the first novel he has already left the police force, frustrated by the way many of his colleagues had lost their jobs or otherwise been sidelined by the new regime, and angered also by the brutal practices that the Nazi’s propagated through the security services. In these stories Gunther is a man disenfranchised by the events in his city and country, and someone whose unwillingness to hide his opinions often leads him into trouble with dangerous people both inside and outside the government; he knows how to play the game and get along, but struggles to bring himself to do it.

March Violets takes place against the backdrop of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. An industry tycoon’s daughter and son-in-law have been killed, and he hires Gunther to investigate the deaths. Gunther’s work on the case leads him into a crossfire of conflicting interests among high-level Nazi officials. As Gunther roams Berlin in search of answers to his questions in the case, Kerr highlights the political rivalries within the regime, the criminal behavior linked to government supported labor and cultural groups and the growing struggles of the Jewish population: historical fiction at its best, in the form of a crime drama.

The second novel of the collection, The Pale Criminal, is set in 1938, in the months leading up to Kristallnacht, the night during with a pogrom was carried out against Jews throughout Germany. A series of brutal rapes and ritual murders of fifteen to sixteen year old girls is occurring in Berlin, and Gunther is forced by a high-ranking Nazi official to rejoin the police force and from there lead the investigation into the murders. He soon finds himself on a trail that implicates powerful members of the Nazi regime itself in the crimes. As in the best crime dramas, not everything is as it seems, and even supporters cannot always be trusted to be revealing the whole truth.

The last of the three novels in the book, A German Requiem, takes place in 1947, as post-war relations between the Americans and the Soviets are deteriorating almost daily. The story opens in Berlin, with Gunther being hired by a former police colleague who is in jail in Vienna, accused of killing an American officer. Gunther follows the trail of clues to Vienna, where the balance of the story takes place. Reflecting the reality of the period, Gunter finds himself a pawn in a complexly layered and deadly serious struggle for control being played out by the American and Soviet occupation forces.

Kerr writes the stories very much in the traditional manner of crime and mystery novels. There is an extensive slang for the inhabitants of Gunther’s world --- police officers, petty criminals and gangsters --- which takes some getting used to: lighters are guns, for example, and spanners or chocoladies are prostitutes. Similes also fly fast and free throughout the novel --- one of my favorites: “Pipe-smokers are the grandmasters of fiddling and fidgeting, and as great a blight on our world as a missionary landing on Tahiti with a box full of brassieres.”

And the main character, Bernie Gunther, is a classically styled private eye in these novels, in line with other such literary detectives --- hard-boiled but with a soft-spot for a woman in trouble, self-deprecating but with a biting wit, smart and perceptive but not omniscient. Significantly however, Gunther also represents a foil to the Nazis around him and those who support the Nazis through their silence. He makes his dislike of the regime and its policies clear at every opportunity, even when talking to Nazi officials who must often remind him that despite their need for his services, their tolerance for his opinions has limits. Thus Gunther allows Kerr to, in the context of a detective novel, describe and comment on the tragedy of Nazi Germany.

In these novels are straight-forward detective stories for the reader who loves “noir,” but also a fascinating window into Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and central Europe in the early cold war years.

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Before being brought together into the collection titled Berlin Noir, the three novels were published individually as:
  • March Violets (1989)
  • The Pale Criminal (1990)
  • A German Requiem (1991)
There have been several additional novels in the series, including The One from the Other, A Quiet Flame, If the Dead Rise Not and Field Gray.

Rumors about Berlin Noir being turned into an HBO mini-series.

A review of another Philip Kerr novel appeared earlier in this blog: A Philosophical Investigation.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Book Review: "The Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna (2009)  

Barbara Kingsolver (1955-)

507 pages

The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.
Around this simple but often forgotten truth turns Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful novel “The Lacuna”. Through a narrator who we come to know mainly indirectly, by way of his descriptions of the people and events of his life, Kingsolver introduces us to “piece[s we] don’t know” about some of the most colorful personalities and dramatic happenings of the mid-20th century.

The narrator, Harrison Shepherd, is a young teenager in 1929 when the novel opens, living with his mother on a small island off the eastern coast of Mexico. She has separated from her American husband (Shepherd’s father), who remains behind in Washington D.C.. Over two decades Shepherd lives for extended periods in both Mexico and the United States.

Kingsolver constructs the novel mostly through diary entries from Shepherd, in addition to some of his letters and a few newspaper articles. Thus the story is told nearly entirely from Shepherd’s point of view. A watchful, insightful and obsessive diarist, he represents for the reader a trusted documenter of the world he encounters, even if at the same time he remains a largely cryptic character, seldom writing about himself.

In Mexico he finds work as an older teenager with the painter Diego Rivera, eventually joining Rivera’s household staff as a cook. In this way he comes to know and become befriended by Rivera’s wife, the artist Frida Kahlo. Rivera and Kahlo were larger-than-life figures in the 1930’s and 40’s, who shocked the art world with their avant-garde painting styles. They also played a highly visible role in world politics by hosting Leon Trotsky, who was on the run from assassins working for Lenin’s secret police, and supporting communist groups agitating in Mexico.

Through Shepherd, Kingsolver reveals the lives and characters of Rivera and particularly Kahlo in ways that a biography could never do. With a few exceptions we don’t learn about where they went when, but rather how they were as people, what they thought about their world and how they lived their daily lives. Imagined details and conversations, certainly, but developed from Kingsolver’s research of documents, pictures and paintings in the historical record, and which bring the pair of artists to life in front of our eyes. When Shepherd documents his conversations and encounters with Frida Kahlo, the rendering is so vivid that as readers we find ourselves backing away from her bluster and empathizing with her vulnerabilities as though she were with us in the room. Kingsolver’s writing and method of telling the story make the intensity of many of the scenes deeply affecting.

Shepherd leaves Mexico for the United States in 1940, and Kingsolver turns her attention to the U.S., and the austerity and sacrifice of the war years, as well as the attacks on people’s humanity that were the Japanese internments and then the post-war witch hunt for communists. As in the earlier part of the novel we experience these events through Shepherd’s eyes, and what in a history book would be dry and distant becomes in Kingsolver’s hands palpable and close. Shepherd’s diaries and letters bring alive the depth of the sacrifices people made to support the war effort during World War II, and the sudden explosion of production and consumption of household goods in the years after the war. More disturbingly, we experience first-hand the insidious spread of the fear that grew out of the search for the perceived communist menace, turning neighbor on neighbor as many hundreds of innocent people saw their lives destroyed by allegations of being un-American.

Enhancing the story throughout is Kingsolver’s beautiful writing. It is almost a shame to give an example, because it robs a new reader of the joy of discovering it without warning and completely in context --- but just one here to convey the power of her writing: Shepherd has arrived at the Washington train station, in the dead of winter, having been sent by his mother from sunny, warm Mexico to attend school near his father; he comes out of the train station with his father, and “outdoors the sun was cold, shining without heat, like an electric bulb. Crowds hurried along, unconcerned their star had no fire.”

Read quotes from this book

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Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION