Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Review of The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr (Quercus, 2015)

After his recent trip to Prague that ended with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, veteran cop, Bernie Gunther, is back in Berlin working once again in Kripo.  However, his old boss, Arthur Nebe, has secured him a job with the War Crime Bureau, but first he wants him to deliver a speech at a meeting of the International Criminal Police Commission about one his famous cases.  That meeting is taking place in Wannasee in the villa of a former rich businessman who is now languishing in prison, and despite his better judgement, Bernie starts to investigate the transfer of the house.  At the meeting he is asked to babysit two Swiss policemen and his interest is piqued in some strange transactions between a German business owned by the SS and Swiss companies.  Before he’s made much headway, his 'employer' is murdered and he's transferred to the War Crime Bureau and heads East to investigate the Katyn massacre.  On his return to Berlin he is summoned by the Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels, who wants Bernie to go to Croatia to track down the father of his favour starlet at the German film company, UFA, the beautiful, Dalia Dresner.  It’s a task that he has no option in avoiding and this is doubly so once he meets and instantly falls in love with the charismatic Dalia.  What he finds in Croatia makes even a witness of the horrors of the Nazi atrocities in Russia blanche and he returns to Germany determined to pursue his leading lady, aware that he is crossing one of the most dangerous men in the Reich.  She, however, has fled to Switzerland, and the home of her rich husband, a Serb nationalist.

The Lady from Zagreb is the tenth book in the Bernie Gunther series.  Many of the books have intersecting characters and plotlines and span a number of years and places.  This book is no different, spanning 1942 to 1956, but mainly focusing on 1942-1943, and includes a number of re-occurring real-life characters such as Arthur Nebe, Joseph Goebbels, and Friedrich Minoux, along with fictional characters such as Bernie’s wife, Kirsten.  The tale picks up after Prague Fatale and spans The Man Without Breath.  The strength and the real joy of the series is the character of Bernie Gunther, a world weary, sarcastic, caustic, anti-Nazi, who stumbles through life with bombast, luck, cynicism and bloody-mindedness, surviving mainly because he's useful.  Bernie is in fine form in The Lady from Zagreb, investigating two cases that both have Swiss connections, and one of which involves an excursion into the confused killing fields of Croatia.  The plot is somewhat rambling, and it’s fair to say that there is quite a bit going on between the two cases, and for good measure Kerr drops all kinds of other small vignettes into the story.  Moreover, there are a couple of somewhat clunky plot devices and whilst it is not necessary, an understanding of how the other books situate the fractured timeline is helpful.  That said, Kerr manages to keep the story together and coherent and the pages turning.  And as usual, there is a strong historicization and sense of time and place.  The result is an engaging and disturbing tale of lust, corruption, mass murder, and surviving in a society that has lost its moral compass.  An interesting addition to Bernie’s unfolding biography.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What seems best about Kerr's books is the clarity of the historical contextualization; story grows out of the context rather than the context being slapped onto the story.