Tuesday, December 05, 2006

March Violets: Philip Kerr

(part of the Berlin Noir trilogy)

There was one other reason (apart from obvious one: it is crime fiction) I picked up Berlin Noir – to get a feel of the streets of Berlin in the mid-30s (I figured it was an easier way than reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich or some such). And March Violets, the first book in the trilogy, did not disappear on that count. Set in 1936, around the time the Olympics kick off in Berlin, it traces the exploits of Bernie Gunther, a policeman-turned-private-investigator, as he gets commissioned by industrialist Hermann Six to investigate the murder of his daughter and son-in-law (among other things).

The encounters Bernie has with different people and the places he goes to give a good sense of anti-Semitism (“there’s no telling when they’ll ban Jews from breathing oxygen”), Berlin under the Nazis (“a big, haunted house with dark corners, gloomy staircases, sinister cellars, locked rooms, and a whole attic of poltergeists on the loose…”), Hitler (“…isn’t it how Hitler got elected in the first place: too many people who didn’t give a shit who was running the country?”) and the Hitler Salute, the shaping of Nazi Germany (“I am not interested in The Past and, if you ask me, it is this country’s obsession with its history that has partly put us where we are now: in the shit”) and the absoluteness and thoroughness of the regime, summed up in the simple but chilling logic in the question at the end.

“I have this friend, an engineer, who tells me they’re building an autobahn right across the Polish Corridor, and that one is projected across Czechoslovakia. Now why else would that be but to move an army about?”

What struck me the most with March Violets is the tone, especially considering the setting (Germany) and the nationality of the author (English): it comes across as extremely American. While there is the odd mention to Sherlock Holmes (“You can tell a lot by a client’s shoes.”), the tone of the narrative seems very American (including a reference to Dashiell Hammett, though in a not-so-positive sense: “He’s an American, but I think he is wonderful”).

“Detection is all about chain-making, manufacturing links” asserts Philip Kerr. However, you do get a sense that Bernie goes about his task in a not-so-logical a manner. There seems to be an attempt to make him a gun-toting, heavy-drinking, irresistible man with a swagger – the archetypal detective of dime novels, which tends to take away from the narrative a bit. Moreover, the use of the first person narrative does tend to grate at times, especially when Bernie is attacked. For a man to be coshed and still say “I was getting tired of being knocked out” does stretch the imagination a tad.

The other complaint I have about March Violets is the rushed treatment of final phase of the book – the phase set in the concentration camp. It stretches credibility that Bernie finds his quarry so conveniently and quickly. Moreover, a bit more of a description of the concentration camp could have been interesting. I think I will come back to the other two books in this trilogy later on – may be I will get more of that.

Post-script: March Violets is a derisive term used by original Nazis to describe new converts to Nazism.

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