My latest Bernie Gunther novel arrived a couple of weeks ago, and I am enjoying getting reacquainted with the hard-boiled hero of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy and The One From the Other and A Quiet Flame. In If The Dead Rise Not, we find Bernie as house detective at the glamorous Adlon Hotel in 1934 Berlin, on the eve of the Nazi Olympics in Germany. At some point the plot will apparently leap forward twenty years to 1954 Havana, and goings-on there will be somehow connected to goings-on in pre-war Berlin. It’s a little hard to say because Kerr is taking his sweet time getting to the dramatic point, although it is clear that it will involve dead Jews whom nobody cares about, the Olympics, the Amis (that’s us) and the usual bag of assorted nasty Nazis and classy dames. The latter category is represented here by Mrs. Noreen Charambalides (isn’t that fun to say? Char-am-ba-LEED-es), a gorgeous American journalist who is paling around with Hedda Adlon, the equally glamorous and sharp young wife of the hotel’s owner. Noreen is conveniently sort-of separated from her husband at the moment, and needs Bernie to help her get some dirt on the German Olympic Committee so she can push the US government to boycott the Games. Bernie and Noreen have already gotten themselves in some touchy situations with various shady characters, as well as some bumsen, natch.
Kerr clearly loves the noir formula, and what I like about his writing is that it flirts with caricature of the genre, but never quite embraces is completely. So, you get marvelous bits like this:
“Herr Rubusch was still in bed. I hoped he’d wake up and shout at us to get out and let him get some sleep, but he didn’t. I put my fingers on the big vein on his neck, but there was so much fat on him that I soon gave up and, having opened his pajama jacket, pressed my ear to his cold ham of a chest.
‘Shall I call Dr. Küttner?’ asked Pieck.
‘Yes. But tell him not to hurry. He’s dead.’
I shrugged. ‘Staying in a hotel is a bit like life. At some stage you have to check out.’
‘Oh, dear me, are you sure?’
‘Baron Frankenstein couldn’t make this character move.’” (57)
One of the main things that makes Bernie so palatable is that he is no Nazi, in fact, he rather despises the new party in power, but is pragmatic enough about his own survival to visit a vaguely criminal type who will “erase” his one jewish grandmother from his record, making him effectively untouchable – as long as he keeps his mouth shut. Still, one can’t help but find him just a little too prescient as in this exchange with Gypsy Trollman, a former boxing star now turned dive-club bouncer thanks to his Romany heritage”
“’[Trollman] shrugged. Roma people. Jewish people. Homos and commies. The Nazis need someone to hate, that’s all.’
‘I guess you’re right,’ I said. ‘But it makes me worry if there’s another war. I worry what will happen to all these poor bastards the Nazis don’t like.’” (128)
True, there were those who had a sense of what was coming, but Bernie doesn’t come across as that introspective so it rings a little false even from this Weimar Republic-loving WW1 veteran.
If The Dead Rise Not is clearly filling in some of the story between the tales in the Berlin Noir trilogy, and then will take us forward after that last odd story that was set in Argentina and if I recall seemed to involve baby selling and toxic mining or something really far-fetched like that. So far, so good! Because you’ve got to enjoy a guy who claims that the good looking gal on his arm “commanded attention like a nudist playing the trombone.” (159) Just think about that one for a moment.