Tangled Web UK Review July 2007
The One from the Other: A Bernie Gunther Novel by
pbk out July 06
Philip Kerr’s three pre- and post-World War II novels featuring Berlin-based private eye Bernie Gunther were one of the brightest features of the UK crime fiction scene in the early 90s. A character in the new book describes Bernie as “a kraut with principles”, and surely there never was a more adroit use of Chandler’s “complete and common man” than in this series set amongst the far from fragrant world of Nazi Germany, not to mention the dubious compromises of the immediate post-war era.
Unlike Chandler’s hero however, Bernie is both tarnished and quite often afraid. Just how tarnished we discover during the course of this book. Then there is the fact that his previous cases have had walk-on parts for some of Germany’s most notorious war criminals – all recorded on film, as Bernie also discovers, to his cost.
There’s another notorious war criminal in this case too, appearing first in the episode that forms the book’s prologue. It’s 1937, and Bernie is to reluctantly accompany two Nazis on a ‘fact-finding’ (and, in fact, factual) mission to Palestine, one of whom is the as-yet unknown Adolf Eichmann.
Cut to 1949, and an incident at the failing Dachau hotel inherited from his sick wife’s father prompts him to sell-up and return to his chosen profession in nearby Munich. Before long he is scraping a living tracing a few of the missing pieces in a society shattered almost beyond repair. Until, in classic fashion (and 90 pages in), the “high heels and hauteur” of Frau Britta Warzok walks into Bernie’s modest office, and asks him to confirm that her husband is alive or dead. Not an easy task. She hasn't seen her husband, the deputy commandant of Poland’s most notorious concentration camp, for over three years. Bernie sets out to lift a few rocks and “see what crawls out from underneath”.
It’s an elaborate but beautifully plotted investigation that takes Bernie across the labyrinth that is post-war western Germany, as it tries to come to terms with its recent past. One great strength of the book is Kerr’s great knowledge of the period, particularly of those factions – war crimes investigators, Jewish organisations looking for retribution either by violence or through the courts – as they compete with those assisting fugitives from justice, often with backing from surprising sources.
But in case this all sounds too worthy, remember that through it all wanders the all-too-human Bernie Gunther, (a dark and often hilarious) wisecrack at the ready, and with a wisdom acquired in the hardest of schools. A welcome and worthwhile addition to a classic series.
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