March Violets

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?

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14 Responses to March Violets

  1. Deb says:

    Unlike you, I could not finish this book–for all of the reasons you have noted, but also because, knowing the shadow of the Third Reich and the approaching holocaust is looming over everything, the crimes in the book seemed somehow, well, insignificant. It was as if Bernie was trying to weed a small patch of garden when an enormous forest was taking over his yard.

    • Jenny says:

      That part actually didn’t bother me, because it seemed as though most Germans at that time would be trying to carry on with their lives. It’s not as though people in the mid-1930s would have dropped their professions and sat waiting for the Holocaust to happen. But the one other thing I didn’t mention was that I kept wondering how all the pulpy language would translate into German. :)

      • Deb says:

        I don’t think I expressed myself as clearly as I should have. The primary reason I couldn’t finish the book because, as a reader in the 21st century, I KNEW what was coming–and because Kerr, who wrote this book in the 1980s, knew what was coming. I think I would have had a different reaction to the book if it had actually been written in the early 1930s. There are a number of books published before WWII that make glancing references to the Nazi menace (such as Huxley’s EYELESS IN GAZA or some of Vicki Baum’s books). Obviously I don’t expect those authors to have a crystal ball and predict what is going to happen, but it just didn’t work for me trying to read something by a writer who knew the holocaust was just around the corner but didn’t (IMHO) incorporate that into his work.

      • Jenny says:

        I’d forgotten that you hadn’t finished the book — he does actually incorporate the Holocaust. Even if you don’t count what’s happening to the Jews in the rest of the book (losing jobs, selling jewels, going into hiding), he has a piece near the end where he must enter Dachau, the first concentration camp to be built (only 50 days after Hitler entered power.) It’s quite clear that he sees what’s going to happen. So that objection wasn’t one that bothered me.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Based on your review and Deb’s comments I don’t think I would rush to add this one to my list.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I think it’s quite popular, so clearly a lot of people don’t have the same reaction I’ve had. But I wouldn’t read another, myself.

  3. bibliolathas says:

    I’m so sad you didn’t like it – I have loved the series so far (the trilogy especially). I thought all the negatives (the pettiness, the ugly dialogue, the moral compromise) were utterly appropriate for capturing the ‘little picture’ element of the ‘big picture’ horror of the time. I loved the historical breadth of his vision too (which reminds me somewhat of Charles McCarry). I’ve found Kerr’s rivals for this era (David Downing; Rebecca Cantrell) rather too well-mannered, by comparison. Oh well, each to her own!

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t object to anything about the plot, and I love a morally compromised hero (see Jo Walton for a good one of those!) I agree that Kerr does a good job reflecting how Gunther must work in a system he hates. But the schticky, plasticky, wisecracky narration — which was not just now and then, but all the time — was too much for me. I found it so distracting I couldn’t enjoy what was good about the novel. But we can agree on Charles McCarry!

  4. I was so hopeful when I saw your first description. I love noir, and WWII fascinates me, but wow. That excerpt you quoted was pretty bad in terms of schtick. Thanks for the review, though. I might have to still try one in the series.

  5. I’ve not read it. And I feel your frustrations. I’ve had similar feelings with other books.

  6. Christy says:

    I read the trilogy some time ago and remember liking the grittiness. The Dachau part at the end was memorable for its (appropriate) and stark departure of tone. I didn’t mind the non-stop noir patter, maybe because I wasn’t and still am not that familiar with the original noirists (Hammett, et al.) I don’t remember the second book that well, but I remember liking the third book the best. Sort of had a “Third Man” vibe to it, as far as setting anyway.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for this! I really appreciate hearing good things about this series, because I know others have had a good experience with it.

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