Philip Kerr has just released his 9th Bernie Gunther mystery, A Man without Breath. Meanwhile, despite my best intentions (or more likely because of all the literary distractions that come my way thanks to this blog), I was trailing behind at #5. Checking the library catalogue I found that unabridged audios were available for titles 5-8. A couple of months ago I decided to start working my way through them.
For those who don’t know Bernie Gunther, he is a one time Berlin cop, forced into the SS during the Hitler years. When I last left him, he had somehow managed to get himself branded a war criminal and was on a boat fleeing to Argentina along with more infamous members of the Nazi hoi polloi. The thing about Bernie is that he is a basically good guy, resolutely and vehemently anti-Nazi, but with shades of moral ambiguity. I’m never quite sure whether I believe all his protestations of innocence, because in the present he shows a ruthless streak which can be disproportionate to current circumstance.
All he wants to do is outrun his past but, in A Quiet Flame, seeking sanctuary and an Argentinian passport in the age of Peron, it’s unlikely that people will let his sleeping dogs lie. So when a young German girl goes missing and another is found sadistically murdered, he is enlisted as a gumshoe by the Argentinian secret police. Simultaneously he is approached by the beautiful Anna and asked to find out what happened to her missing Jewish relatives. His motivation for taking on this case – one that will bring him into mortal danger because the Argentinian government just relish foreigners hunting for their disappeared: “It’s not that I love Jews,” he says, “it’s that I love anti-Semites just that little bit less.” (And he can’t say no to a pretty girl!)
The murder echoes an unsolved Berlin case from 1932 – something horrible and seedy which is matched by something just as bad in post-war Argentina. The past mingling with the present is a staple in the series. Its purpose as Bernie jumps out of the frying pan and into the fire, from Argentina (A Quiet Flame) to Cuba (If the Dead Rise Not) before being extradited back to Germany to face a potential war crime trial (Field Grey) is to show the amorality of political dictatorships, be they left or right wing. Forgive me for the misquote here but this is from memory of an audiobook “A rat, be it black, brown or white, is still a rat” muses Bernie at one point in Field Grey.
He might be talking about political dictatorships and even the Amis themselves (it’s their pretence of civilised behaviour that sticks in his throat) but during Field Grey serious questions begin to arise about Bernie’s moral rectitude. Given that most of the novel is the account of Bernie’s war, his not always innocent time on the Eastern front and his incarceration in a Russian PoW camp, it can’t really be called a thriller. But it is intriguing to discover how Bernie survived when so many others did not. Kerr takes some huge risks here: a) trying his readers’ patience, particularly if they had come to this expecting a thriller and b) risking Bernie’s reputation. There’s no way he can always be cast as a victim here. As for the final twist, it left me speechless and for the first time willing to cast an adverse judgment.
I need some time to digest this before moving onto #8 – not only to answer the question whether all is fair in love and cold war but because I was finding the cumulative effect of all this political corruption overwhelming. I also need a break to steel myself because if Bernie has been jumping from frying pan to fire up to now, something tells me that he’s just landed in an inferno.