Monday, November 2, 2009

Review of If The Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr (Quercus, 2009)

It’s only eighteen months since the end of the Weimar Republic and unable to stomach working for the Nazi regime homicide detective Bernie Gunther has quit the police force and taken a job as the house detective at the world famous Adlon Hotel, just a stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate. There are rumours of impending race laws, but the Jewish population are already suffering daily humiliation and discrimination, including being expelled from all German sporting organisations. Such anti-Semitism looks like it might draw international condemnation and pressure with the Americans in particular threatening to boycott to the 1936 Olympics, but inexplicably the American delegate visiting Berlin reports to Roosevelt that stories concerning anti-Jewish actions are overly hyped. Two American guests at the Adlon have a vested interest in the decision – the beautiful Noreen Charalambides, a Jewish journalist and aspiring novelist who wishes to expose the truth, and Max Reles, a Chicago gangster, friendly with several high-ranking Nazis, who wants to repeat the mob’s success at the Los Angeles Olympics at rigging the construction contracts. Gunther has problems of his own – he’s managed to accidentally kill a cop and he needs his Jewish grandmother to be airbrushed from history – but he’s also soon unwittingly caught between the two Americans and has two murders to solve – that of a German businessman and a Jewish boxer. The only problem is, very few people want them solved. Twenty years later, having managed to survive the war, Gunther is hiding out in Cuba on an Argentine passport when the ghosts of the case reappear, only the Chicago mob have swapped deals with the Nazis for Batista’s regime.

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series has a lot of things going for it. First, Kerr’s narrative is colourful and engaging, and he tells a well plotted story. Second, he expertly blends fiction with real people, places and historical events. Third, the books are politically astute and targeted, whilst at the same time being multi-layered, complex and ambiguous. Kerr is vehemently anti-Nazi, but he recognises that post Weimer Republic Germany was a cauldron of competing ideologies and that personal relationships often over-rode ideological differences. So, for example, former colleagues who have become pro-Nazi are prepared to help Gunther out as a personal favour, and vice versa, even though they know his political views. Fourth, in Bernie Gunther he has created one of the finest characters in crime fiction. Gunther is no black and white character with little depth. Rather he’s a resonant, luminous, multi-coloured, complex, compromised and flawed individual. While his heart is roughly in the right place, Gunther is morally suspect on many levels with his personal desires, head strong nature and smart mouth clouding his decision making, often placing him in situations where lying, cheating, stealing, killing, etc. is a necessary solution.

If The Dead Rise Not is a solid addition to the series, but in my view is not quite as good as some of the others in the series (which given the very high standard of the previous books is always going to be a tough challenge). The dialogue was, as ever, sharp and often caustic and very funny. The characterisation was excellent. The story was interesting. My issue was with pacing and coincidence. For me the 1934 period of the book, which was effectively the back story for 1954 period, was too long and drawn out and the 1954 period too short and underdeveloped. My sense was that the balance needed to be shifted to at least a fifty-fifty split in length, with the Cuba part of the plot extended and deepened to cover more of the politics of the time and the mob connections, and provide more details of Gunther’s life post-Argentina (following on from the last book – A Quiet Flame). The ending was also too swift. In addition, the plot hinges on a coincidence in which three characters who have not seen each other in twenty years meet in the one location (on a different continent) in the space of a few hours. I had a hard time buying that. Despite these two issues, the book was still a highly enjoyable read and I look forward to the next instalment in the series.

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