As ‘The Ripster’, Mike Ripley writes the gossip column Getting Away With Murder for Shots. Mr Campion’s Fox, now out from Severn House, is his twenty-first book.
It’s hard to think that it is over twenty-five years since Bernie Gunther made his debut on the crime fiction scene in March Violets as a private eye in 1936 Nazi Berlin. His career prospects, pounding those particularly mean streets, did not exactly seem rosy, but fortunately Bernie turned out to be an excellent detective and a very poor Nazi, and we know he survived the war despite having, on occasion, to work hand-in-leather-glove with the likes of Reinhardt Heydrich and Josef Goebbels.
With The Lady from Zagreb, Philip Kerr gives us his tenth Gunther novel and it is a testament to his writing skill that Bernie remains as interesting, as fresh and as human – despite the horrors he has witnessed – as he did when he first shouldered his way into the ranks of great fictional detectives.
Kerr has always preferred to keep his readers on their toes by not following a strict chronological order and the new novel opens in 1956 and then immediately flashes back to 1942, just after Heydrich’s assassination, with Bernie serving reluctantly as an officer in the SD, doing his best not to aid the Nazi war effort and nothing to hide his social democrat past. But it is his past, as a policeman and a private detective before the war, which brings him to the attention of Propaganda Minister (and boss of the German film industry) Josef Goebbels, who needs him to track down the missing father of a rising young starlet for whom Goebbels has great plans. It is a far from straightforward mission: not only does Bernie fall for the actress in question, but her father seems to be up to his elbows in blood in the fighting in Croatia, which even out-horrors the horrors Bernie has witnessed on the Russian front.
From Berlin, where Gunther addresses an international police conference in a villa on the Wannsee (with shades of the notorious conference which decided on the Final Solution), the action moves to Yugoslavia and then Switzerland as the plot expands way beyond the search for a missing father. In all these settings, Kerr offers a fantastic wealth of believable detail but he never lets his extensive research divert or bog down the story. And he is confident enough in his material to allow himself a sly in-joke when Bernie gets to investigate a murder in Switzerland known as The Lady in the Lake case, nicely tapping into the literary bloodline that links Bernie and Philip Marlowe.
Bernie Gunther, of course, is at the centre of everything and even when in the presence of great evil, remains his own, rational, man. At one point, he ponders the question: “what Goebbels’s several children would think about their father’s crimes when, one day, the Nazis were history” which is chilling if you know what did happen to Goebbels’s children.
Above all, Bernie is a survivor and has a thick skin to prove it. Is he a nihilist? No, he just doesn’t think life has very much meaning, or in a touching piece of self-analysis: ‘You know, I often think if I hadn’t been as policeman, I might have been a really good man.’
Good man or not, Bernie Gunther is a superbly drawn character and, I am delighted to say, one who will return in 2016 in The Other Side of Silence.