I approached the first of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir novels, starring Bernie Gunther, with a thrill of anticipatory pleasure. I’m fond of real mean-streets noir (The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Killer Inside Me), I’ve been a mystery fan almost as long as I’ve been reading novels, and the second World War is a particular interest of mine, so this seemed like it would be a great fit.
Bernie is a private investigator in the early days of Hitler’s rise to power, and — sadly and perhaps obviously — most of his trade is in missing persons, because people disappear all too easily in the Thousand Year Reich. He’s hired by a wealthy business magnate to find some important documents missing from a safe, but a person turns out to be missing, too. One dangerous clue leads to another until the entire business comes unraveled.
There were a lot of good things about this book. Kerr is pretty good at evoking the atmosphere of Hitler’s Berlin, with an eager populace trying to out-German each other, a proliferating and menacing bureaucracy, and a confused and beleaguered Jewish population. As befits a novel in the noir tradition, it rains all the time, and there are whores on every corner. The story is competent and ties up its loose ends (something that steps out of line with, say, the Chandler tradition, but maybe he’s trying to be more like Hammett). Bernie is a good noir hero, trying to be indifferent to the suffering around him, trying to make a buck (well, a mark), but not quite succeeding.
But here’s the thing. The original noir novels were written in the 1920s and ’30s. They are violent, often misogynistic, pulpy, unsentimental, outrageous in their style. I can forgive them some of their misogyny, some of their racism, because of the time they were written in; I can enjoy their style because it was original and spare. March Violets, however, was written in 1989. It has all the same ugly misogyny, all the same tropes, no fresh twists. The language is so hard-boiled as to look like a parody. I open the book completely at random:
“Keep your ears stiff, Neumaier, I haven’t finished yet. My client’s flea is solid. Cash money.” I tossed the photograph of Six’s diamonds at him. “If some mouse walks in here trying to sell it, you give me a call.”… It made me feel about as comfortable as a trout on a marble slab, and for no reason that I could think of, I felt something like shame.
This kind of language is rife in every paragraph on every page. At first, I smiled, but after a while, it grated, because this isn’t actually supposed to be a parody. Bernie is serious about his job, and people are dead, and the Gestapo is in the streets, and when he goes around saying that something is as risqué as a wafer on an ice-cream sundae, or that there’s only one thing that unnerves him more than the company of an ugly woman in the evening, and that’s the company of the same ugly woman the next morning, it gets on my nerves. This late in the day, I wanted to see him do something fresh with this material. At around the halfway mark, I really struggled with whether I even wanted to finish the book. The book won, and I did; I wanted to see what happened. Towards the end of the novel, there’s a piece about Dachau, during which I am grateful to say that Kerr refrains from most of his silly remarks; he is close to reverent. I was glad to see him capable of it.
If this book had been written in the 1930s, I might have reacted to it differently, or if it had been an out-and-out parody, I might have seen it differently again. But as it was, it sat oddly with me. Has anyone else read this? What was your experience with Bernie Gunther?