Raymond Chandler, creator of the archetypal fictional detective Philip Marlowe, famously wrote of the hard-boiled hero in his essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,”
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid….
The question posed by author Philip Kerr in his Bernie Gunther novels would seem to be, “What if the streets were even meaner than those of Philip Marlowe’s Los Angeles? What if a man very like Marlowe had been a detective in Berlin in the 1930s?”
I had never heard of Philip Kerr before I got the offer of some free review proofs from G. P. Putnam’s (I love being a book blogger). But I’ll have to find the earlier books in this series now. A Quiet Flame is pure, classic hard-boiled, worthy of Chandler and Hammet, with an original twist.
The story opens in 1950, as former Berlin policeman and private detective Bernie Gunther sails into Buenos Aires under an assumed name, in the company of two other hunted men, one of them Adolf Eichman. Gunther has never been a Nazi (indeed, as the story reveals, he incurred a lot of resentment as a policeman for his defense of Jews). Nevertheless, through circumstances which are not explained in this book, he came to be a member of the SS, and a hunted man.
Soon he meets President Peron (as well as Evita), and is recognized and recruited by the head of the secret police, who has a special assignment for him. A young girl has been murdered and mutilated, and another has disappeared. The chief believes the perpetrator must be one of the German expatriate community, because of resemblances to a series of murders which, he knows, Gunther himself investigated in Berlin but was not able to solve. Gunther also considers this likely, as he always had the idea that the murderer had been among the upper ranks of the Nazis, a number of whom are in Argentina now.
A series of flashbacks take us back to 1932, and follow Gunther’s investigations as he tries to do his job while navigating the dangerous political currents caused by rising political chaos and the ascendancy of the National Socialists.
In the Argentine story line, Gunther makes discreet inquiries among the Argentine Germans, meeting several prominent former Nazis, including Josef Mengele. He learns more about the political situation in Argentina, a situation he finds frighteningly familiar. He also meets a beautiful Jewish woman named Anna, who persuades him to try to learn the fate of a number of Jewish refugees who have disappeared.
He falls in love with Anna, and tells her of his story and his guilt:
“I blame the Communists…. I blame von Hindenburg…. I blame six million unemployed…. I blame the Spartakists and I blame the Freikorps. I blame the Great War for taking away the value of human life. I blame the inflation and the Bauhaus and Dada and Max Reinhardt. I blame Himmler and Goering and Hitler and the SS and Weimar and the whores and the pimps. But most of all I blame myself for doing nothing…. Which was all that was required for Nazism to succeed. I share the guilt. I put my survival ahead of all the other considerations. That is self-evident. If I was truly innocent, then I’d be dead, Anna. And I’m not.”
The story is ultimately tragic and heartbreaking. The reader will have to decide the lesson of the book, but Gunther’s sorrow is Germany’s sorrow, and the wreck of his life parallels that of his homeland. One can pity Gunther, or judge him, but it’s impossible not to ask, “What would I have done in his place?”
I’m not even sure how Philip Marlowe would have answered that question.
Top-notch. Definitely for grownups, but highly recommended.