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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Hardboiled fiction via the German Reich

On suggestion of friend PP started Philip Kerr's March Violets, first vol of his "Berlin Noir" trilogy, from about 1990; Kerr is a Scot, this series of his novels - maybe many more of his novels too I don't know - are set in Berlin (obviously) in about 1935, so they're noir in a double-sense: the story on the surface is exactly like about a thousand sets of American crime fiction, the solitaire detective nursing his loneliness and isolation (in this case, Gunther, a private detective, formerly on the police force not on his own, widowed, heavy drinker, small office space in a shambles, run by an efficient secretary, and so on - all very familiar), and the plot involves a private but politically connected industrialist-millionaire whose daughter has been found shot to death, along w/ her somewhat shady husband, in their mansion, which someone, the killer presumably, set on fire presumably to destroy the evidence. So far, all pretty familiar stuff - but what raises this novel to a higher level is the politically fraught setting. All the noirish events of the narrative pale beside the deeply troubling events in German society going on outside the door, and Kerr does not shrink from these: the attacks on the Jews and the race laws, the parades and political rallies that everyone must listen to live or on radio, the thugs in taverns chanting "patriotic" songs - and most of all the need for a good, apolitical man like Gunther to make a show of participation or else risk getting attacked by gangs of thugs. Kerr does a great job maintaining Gunther's moral neutrality - he's willing to do business w/ Jews despite the race laws, because as he puts it their money is as good as anyone else's, and he loathes the fake patriotism, the bullying, and the people now advertising their business as "German" - but he's not leading any sort of fight or uprising against the Nazi hordes, he's just trying to get along - though sometimes, as w/ all detectives in this genre, he's too much of a wise guy and mouths off at the wrong time. I have to also hand it to Kerr - his research is seamless and impeccable, never feels bookish, and he's captures the Chandler-like tough-guy tone filled with argot (Gunther asks about a cracked safe if there were any "piano players," i.e., fingerprints) and acerbic wit.

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