Saturday, September 18, 2010

Berlin Noir

Philip Kerr is the author of The Berlin Noir trilogy, three novels featuring  detective Bernie Gunther whose work solving crimes and pursuing justice in Germany under the Nazis is projected through the lens of a government and society defined by evil and crime. What does it mean to track down a murderer of an individual within the context of pervasive and institutionalized murder of millions? In most matters personal and professional, Bernie seems decent enough and for the most part is trying to do the right thing. Does that even matter?

The first book takes place in 1934, the second in 1938. The third book of the Trilogy takes place in 1947 when Berlin is under Allied occupation and we see the dismal effects of defeat and reckoning on the city.

A Quiet Flame

In his most recent book, A Quiet Flame, a continuation of the trilogy, Bernie is essentially forced out of Germany in 1950 to seek refuge in Argentina where there are a number of Nazi war criminals hiding out (in plain sight). A kidnapping within the German community in Buenos Aires leads to Bernie being compelled by the Argentine police to take up his former profession and search for the guilty. Things aren't what they seem and Bernie's reluctant participation leads him to further reflection on his life, and times, and the nature of the Nazi experience.

A key plot element leads Kerr to flash back to Berlin in 1932 and the two stories (Berlin, 1932 and Buenos Aires, 1950) proceed on parallel tracks. The book continues the development of Bernie's story from the Berlin Noir series and the details of life in Germany and Argentina are vividly drawn. The mood is somber, of course, and one reads along with a growing fascination, and horror, at how one man can, and cannot, make a difference.

I was particularly taken with the descriptions of Germany in 1932, just as Hitler's Nazi Party was about to take control of the government and the future. The description of a society where unemployment is running at thirty three percent and inflation is devaluing whatever income people do have provides the background for a number of political decisions and actions that will result in worldwide devastation and ultimately, destruction of Germany. Kerr's book is good story and good history and added to my own understanding of Hitler's rise and ultimate domination.

Bernie's growing understanding of what happened both in 1930s Germany and in post-war Argentina leads to a poignant acceptance of his own responsibility and guilt as an individual who didn't speak up against what he saw happening, even if it would have made no difference.I really like Bernie and I am intrigued by how he makes decisions in the face of these challenges. The fact that he was once an SS officer (the novels make clear the circumstances) makes me feel guilty for liking him and that is just about how Bernie feels about himself.

Today in the United States we are currently experiencing real political and economic uncertainties that are not nearly as fearful as those that Germany, Europe and the world faced in the 1930s. Still, reading this book made me mindful of how humans make, and are led into, political decisions and how an atmosphere of fear can shape our choices.

Dark and dangerous but fascinating to read and think about. I dare you to read just one.