Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Listened: "March Violets" Philip Kerr

Listened: March Violets by Philip Kerr, 1989, Overdrive.com download.

I enjoyed this.  I've heard of Kerr's books before but never had much interest.  No reason for that lack of interest, I just had none.  When I was searching through Overdrive I was looking for titles narrated by John Lee and chose this.  I only just now looked up the pub year.  I thought this series started in the 2000s.

"March Violets" were the fair-weather nazis (I will not capitalize the word nazi) of the '30s.  Bandwagoneers who jumped aboard as the nazis took charge and consolidated more and more power.  Bernard Gunther is a WWI veteran of the Turkey campaign, an ex-cop, an anti-nazi, and a private investigator.  Gunther's PI practice in the summer of 1936 has turned to a specialization in missing persons - missing Jews.  Many of the missing disappeared into concentration camps (KZs) or are floating in the river.

Gunther also does some insurance company work.  Past insurance work has him hired by an uber-wealthy steel magnate to find the jewels that went missing from his dead daughter's wall safe.  The daughter and husband were shot dead in bed and the house set afire.  Steel Magnate would like revenge but hiring Bernie through the insurance company provides more privacy and Steel Magnate can exact revenge.  Of course, not everything is as it appears.

Gunther starts digging.  He visits the crime scene.  He contacts former cop colleagues and accesses the autopsy records and researches the dead husband and wife.  He looks for safe crackers.  He researches Steel Magnate.  He let's Steel Magnates's much younger, famous film actress wife seduce him.  He hires a former journalist as a new assistant.  He finds a link between the Steel Magnate and the son-in-law who was crusading against graft and corruption. He falls in love with new assistant.  He deals with nazis.  He deals with crooks.  All the usual P.I. stuff.

Some unusual P.I. stuff is being busted by the nazis - busted by Heydrich himself - and sent to a KZ.  Gunther was going to go to the KZ no matter what but by finding the safe cracker who is hiding in the KZ Gunther can earn his release.  The safe cracker took and hid some papers from the daughter's safe that name names in the corruption racket.  Gunther locates the guy, gains the information, and frees himself.  Gunther never finds his disappeared girlfriend.  We don't know if the nazis got here, the crooks, or someone else.

Kerr really uses the setting.  I was seeing things from the perspective of  a normal German of 1936.  A guy who knows the current government is a bunch of two-faced thugs enriching themselves wherever they can.  To criticize the Reich gets you a ride to a Gestapo jail.  From there you might be let go, but your family is more likely a probable Gunther client.  How could you guess how bad things could really get?

1. 1930's German cop and crook slang.
2.  Plenty of Berlin geography with buildings, streets, new highways, the rich and poor parts of town.
3.  The Walther PPK is not a 9mm.  I suppose you could argue 9mm Kurz as 9mm but no one will agree.
4.  Who and whom confuses me.
5.  Violence and the threat of violence as political control. Everyone is now expected to give a Hitler salute.  In select company skipping the salute is cause for a beating.
6.  The ending reminds me of 1984 with Gunther physically spent from the KZ and seeing everything around him in a new and depressing light.  His lover is gone and he still may get a bullet in the back of his head.
EDIT. 7.  I forgot to add that Kerr uses as many similes and metaphors as Joe R. Lansdale.  That's a lot.


Graham Powell said...

The second book, THE PALE CRIMINAL, is even better, though the best in the series is FIELD GRAY, three or four books later. FIELD GRAY pretty much sums up the series to that point, so it helps if you've read them all.

But each one is worth reading for its own sake.

David said...

I’d also heard of Kerr's books – for years – and they sounded like I would enjoy them, but it just took me a while to get around to “Berlin Noir”, which collects the first three Gunther novels. What a disappointment. I couldn’t get past the voice, or lack of a proper voice. Gunther, narrating “March Violets”, sounds like he’s from L.A., not Berlin, and Kerr employs more similes (and not particularly good ones) than Raymond Chandler on a meth and booze binge. Didn’t sound authentic. If you’re writing about a German detective, you should make at least a small attempt to make the character speak and think as a real German detective might.