The Holocaust-era gumshoe
At the moment, the current contretemps in American letters revolves around “The Kindly Ones,” Jonathan Littell’s mammoth, translated-from-French novel about the horrors of the Holocaust that’s divided critics around the world considerably since its initial 2006 publication. Is it, as legendary editor Michael Korda would have it, “a world-class masterpiece of astonishing brutality, originality, and force,” or, as per New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani’s verdict, “willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent”?
Others are better equipped to solve this polarizing conundrum, but I bring Littell up because he attempts -- successfully or otherwise -- to tackle Nazi atrocities head-on, consciously aiming to write a great work of fiction and relegating the reader’s entertainment to mere afterthought. That approach may work for a select few, but eschewing the didactic in favor of embedding the lessons of this monstrous time in history through the prism of the classic entertainment trope of a wisecracking, archly ironic private detective has served British author Philip Kerr extremely well since the three novels that constitute his “Berlin Noir” (Penguin: 836 pp., $20 paper) trilogy first appeared, between 1989 and 1991. In roughly the same number of pages, “Berlin Noir” does exactly the opposite of “The Kindly Ones” -- examining the Holocaust through the prism of what transpired before and after -- and, as a result, the trilogy (and two subsequent sequels) stands a better chance of literary permanence.
Skirting direct examination of the Holocaust may make this bitter pill easier to swallow, but the side-angle method makes these horrors sink in more fully. “March Violets,” the first book in the trilogy, introduces the P.I. in question, Bernie Gunther, some years after he’s quit the Berlin police force and well aware of how the National Socialist Party (ca. 1936) has transformed Berlin into “a big haunted house with dark corners, gloomy staircases, sinister cellars, locked rooms and a whole attic of poltergeists on the loose” that its citizens ignore: “[Most] of the time they just stopped up their ears, covered their blackened eyes and tried to pretend nothing was wrong.” The banality of evil in a nutshell: If it can be ignored, no matter how horrific, as Book 2, “A Pale Criminal,” makes clear (Bernie blows a hole through potential serial murders to expose the first seeds of mass extermination just before Kristallnacht), the problem should just go away.
Except it doesn’t. “A German Requiem” may be an obvious title to describe the country’s state of mind in 1947, but the trilogy’s final installment is no less powerful in describing what pieces are left to be picked up. “For those who had believed in the Fatherland, it was not the defeat which gave the lie to that patriarchal view of society, but the rebuilding. And with the example of Berlin, ruined by the vanity of men, could be learned the lesson that when a war had been fought, when the soldiers are dead and the walls are destroyed, a city consists of its women.” For Bernie, the aftermath’s tentacles reach far beyond Berlin, spurring him to unmask evil doings in Vienna and, two years later, as described in 2006’s “The One From the Other” (Penguin, 372 pp., $15 trade paper), in Munich, even as he remains in the full flower of moral ambiguity, disdainful of all sides of a repellent equation.
All of which set the stage for “A Quiet Flame” (Marion Wood/Putnam: 390 pp., $26.95), the series’ crowning achievement to date, and, quite possibly, the book Kerr has been working toward for two decades. Bernie, with typical understatement, begins his narration with his current location: “The boat was the SS Giovanni, which seemed only appropriate given the fact that at least three of its passengers, including myself, had been in the SS.” Falsely tagged as a war criminal, Bernie’s on his way to Argentina under an assumed name to reap the rewards of the Peron government’s promise of a new life and blank slate. And if it means he has to keep company with the likes of Adolf Eichmann, so be it.
Old investigative habits, however, return to Bernie with the fit of well-worn leather gloves. The disappearance of a young girl echoes an unsolved case from his days at the Alexanderplatz, prompting him to make connections between a possible serial killer running amok and an “Argentine brand of fascism” that Bernie discovers, to his surprise, even outdoes the Nazis. Kerr even has Bernie engaged in intellectual thrust and parry with Evita, “too cool, too businesslike, too efficient, too composed for [his] taste” and glittering with the excesses of her husband’s dictatorship, but also a worthy ally in ways Bernie needs at opportune moments. And the prospect of mortality never looms larger for him, as his late middle age and an unexpected illness contrast sharply with the prospect of one final reach for love, however impossible.
Unlike the earlier novels, “A Quiet Flame” unfolds its story on dual tracks, juxtaposing the latter-day Bernie Gunther against his younger, police-uniformed doppelgänger. Both of them adopt a world-weary demeanor to protect themselves, and both reel from actions whose depravity far exceeds projections. “You’re just a stupid policeman with a taste for the sentimental,” Bernie is admonished in Argentina, just as he’s chastised for not waking up to the fact that the city of Berlin “is a whore and your beloved republic is a pimp” two decades earlier. “These people are just as ruthless as the Germans. Perhaps more so. You see, they’re easier to understand. It’s money and power that motivates them. Not ideology. Not hatred. Not history. Just money and power.”They are dramatic words for dramatic times, just as intoning “sometimes the worst has to happen before you can hope for the best. That’s the only reason anyone is going to vote for the Nazis” evokes a degree of excessive flourish. But Kerr doesn’t drown in the crud of mass evil and never forgets he has a smaller, more accessible story to tell. Nor, however, does he forget that careful balance of entertainment and education strikes notes that are dissonant but decay with long-lasting resonance.
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