Berlin Noir: March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem (Bernie Gunther, 1-3)

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Berlin Noir: March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem (Bernie Gunther, 1-3)

Berlin Noir: March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem (Bernie Gunther, 1-3)

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It's a world where it's hard to hold on to honor; however, Gunther understands that honor has no boundaries, even when the Reich attempts to set them. However, this bit of authorial insecurity is not yet the low point in the series, as the previously tacit cliché of "the shoddy little man in the barely furnished office, who drinks like a suicide who's lost his nerve, and who comes to the assistance of the beautiful but mysterious woman in black" is explicitly written into the text on page 220. Philip Kerr is the New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Bernie Gunther novels, three of which—Field Gray, The Lady from Zagreb, and Prussian Blue—were finalists for the Edgar® Award for Best Novel. I honestly can’t think of a single other detective, murder mystery, or suspense thriller series I’ve read – including those I’ve mentioned above – that I would ever consider as funny. Downing’s main character John Russell and Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel are both news reporters, not detectives, so the sensibilities are different.

Like a damsel in distress, she enlists Bernie’s aid first with her errant but beautiful 19-year-old daughter Dinah, later with her boyfriend Alfredo Lopez, a dissident lawyer who runs afoul of Batista’s police. Bernie is still working as a private investigator in Berlin, in shambles from the Allied bombings and divided into four sectors, each governed by a different force (USA, Britain, France and the Soviet Union).A very tangled plot leads Bernie to take on the identity of another war criminal and fall victim to one of the Jewish vengeance squads roaming post-war Europe. A richly satisfying mystery, one that evokes the noir sensibilities of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald while breaking important new ground of its own.

On a recent trip to the library, I saw that they were having a donated book sale - five for a dollar. He is only in Argentina for a few weeks when he receives an invitation from the head of President Peron’s secret police to investigate a murder that looks a lot like two unsolved murders he investigated back in Berlin in (when else but? They tickled me to the extent that I quickly stopped caring whether these books were intended as homage or imitation and just started inserting mental rimshots after each went past. The Pale Criminal finds Bernie back on the force in 1938 on the edge of war when Berlin experiences the mad spree of a serial killer.They also conjure up a chilling psychological portrait of Germany before and during the war, elevating them beyond pure page-turning crime fiction, for me, into moral literature.

A German Requiem opens in 1947, in a devastated Berlin, Bernie is again a private detective living day to day and watching his wife romance US soldiers.I did not manage to read through the book, quitting it before completing the first of the three stories. We first meet ex-policeman Bernie Gunther in 1936, in March Violets (a term of derision which original Nazis used to describe late converts. Boldly asking for the temporary rank of Kommissar, Gunther finds that a murder hunt for a perverted criminal soon escalates beyond all his predictions.

The woman is Noreen Charalambides (she of the matching sable hair and coat), a Jewish American journalist whom Bernie meets through Hedda Adlon. What sets these novels apart from Furst, of course, is that Furst doesn’t have any continuing character. The first three in the Bernie Gunther series, March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem are true crime classics that transport readers to the rotten heart of Nazi Berlin, and introduce the cynical, wise-cracking private eye who sought justice within it.

Part of the allure of these novels is that Bernie is such an interesting creation, a Chandleresque knight errant caught in insane historical surroundings.

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