Which classic crime author comes to mind when you read this?
Then the green curtain in the confessional twitched and was drawn back and a good-looking woman of about thirty stepped out. She was holding a rosary, crossing herself more for form’s sake than anything else. She was wearing a tight red dress and it was easy to see why she had spent such a long time in the confessional. From the look of her, none of the venial sins would have detained her. She was built for just the one kind of sin, the mortal kind that cried aloud to heaven …..
The woman is Brita Warzok and Bernie Gunther, the dry, sardonic, wise-cracking private investigator in Philip Kerr’s 2007 novel, lives to regret the day she ever crossed his path.
It is 1949 and, after the death of his wife, Gunther reestablishes his private investigation business following the catastrophe of WWII. He is based in a Munich, bombed-out and ruined by the Allied campaign. The rebuilding of the city is in full swing and Gunther expresses his respect for the builders who are reconstructing the many buildings in line with their original architectural designs. (As do I – Munich is the apple of my eye.)
Alongside reconstruction, the fledgling Federal Republic of Germany is grappling with the issue of retribution. Many Nazis have been hanged and many more are on the run. There are those of Gunther’s mindset who believe that the Nazi sadists should all pay for their crimes with their lives. Others advocate an amnesty in order to stabilise administrative functions quickly. Amongst them, surprisingly, a Jewish lawyer who sends Gunther his first few cases. Brita Warzok is his third case. She needs to know if her husband is dead or alive because she wants to remarry.
What follows is an enlightening but shocking tour through post-war Bavaria and the murky foundations of the Federal Republic of Germany; the organisations helping Nazis to escape justice (Odessa, the Comradeship) and their counterpart, the Nakam (Jewish vengeance squads). And while the narrative tone is pure Chandler, the material is much darker, with many war-crimes and atrocities related in gruesome detail. (Not a book for the faint hearted.)
Gunther, at risk of life and limb, is brought into contact with two war criminals, Adolf Eichmann and Eric Gruen. The crimes of the former are well known. But what of the atrocities perpetrated by Gruen in the cause of finding a malaria vaccine? Experiments that were continued well after the war on the inmates of mental hospitals and German POWs. Experiments condoned by the Americans ….. (cf Life Magazine, June 4, 1945, pages 43-46).
All of which (and more besides) is uncovered in Kerr’s novel as Gunther is set up as fall-guy for a war criminal seeking to effect his escape. No government is safe from Gunter’s political cynicism which becomes more virulent as he is made aware of the deceit and hypocrisy of both victors and vanquished. It is, at this stage in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, impossible to tell one from the other.