Tuesday, June 5, 2012

March Violets by Philip Kerr: A review

March Violets are those in Germany of the mid 1930s who have lately become a part of the National Socialist movement as a matter of convenience or perhaps even recent conviction. They are spoken of derisively throughout this first in the series of noir mysteries featuring German gumshoe Bernhard Gunther.

My husband is a Bernie Gunther fan and has long recommended these books to me. I was hesitant to read them because I OD'd on Hitler and Nazi references long, long ago. I could happily live the rest of my life without ever enduring another one. So that was one strike against this book which is heavily invested in the Nazi culture. Bernie is not a Nazi and is not at all sympathetic with their philosophy, but he is a German and must live in a Berlin that is dominated by them; a Berlin that is hazardous to the health of anyone who does not give what the Nazis believe is due deference to all their institutions. In one instance, Kerr writes of Bernie meeting a torchlight parade at night.
Driving west on Leipsigerstrasse, I met the torchlight parade of Brownshirt legions as it marched south down Wilhelmstrasse, and I was obliged to get out of my car and salute the passing standard. Not to have done so would have been to risk a beating. I guess there were others like me in that crowd, our right arms extended like so many traffic policemen, doing it just to avoid trouble and feeling a bit ridiculous. Who knows? But come to think of it, political parties were always big on salutes in Germany: the Social Democrats had their clenched fist raised high above the head; the Bolshies in the KPD had their clenched fist raised at shoulder level; the Centrists had their two-fingered, pistol-shaped hand signal, with the thumb cocked; and the Nazis had fingernail inspection. I can remember when we used to think it was all rather ridiculous and melodramatic, and maybe that's why none of us took it seriously. And here we all were now, saluting with the best of them. Crazy.
Chilling. When I read that, I thought of our own politics of recent years and the ostentatious faux patriotism that has become so much a part of our lives. The flag pins on politicians' lapels. The bank of flags behind the politician whenever he makes the most commonplace appearance or announcement. I don't remember the politicians of my youth requiring any such window-dressing, perhaps because most of the politicians of my youth had been through World War II and understood real patriotism. This phoniness even reaches into the world of baseball where the song "God Bless America" has been added to the seventh inning stretch routine, where "Take Me Out to the Ballgame!" should rule the day. Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now. But truly, one does see parallels between the frightened Germany of the 1930s and the frightened America of the post-9/11 era.

Back to Bernie Gunther. Bernie is a former policeman, now a private investigator who specializes in finding missing persons. This seems a formidable task in a Berlin where people are regularly made to disappear by the state, but Bernie has developed a network of friends and snitches who can be depended on to assist him. 

He is approached by a millionaire businessman, Hermann Six, who wants him to investigate the deaths of his only daughter and son-in-law. The two were shot to death in their bed and their house then torched. The door to a safe in their bedroom where some sensitive documents and some valuable diamonds were kept was found opened and the safe cleaned out. Bernie's task is to find the documents and diamonds and, maybe, find out what happened and why.

The story gets very convoluted. There are red herring characters who seem to serve absolutely no purpose. There are hints of government corruption and of organized crime, but it is extremely hard (at least it was for me) to sort this all out and make sense of it. At one point, Bernie is sent to Dachau which is just as horrific as you would imagine. In short, it seems that everything including the kitchen sink has been thrown into this story.

Another quibble I had with the book was the language. Bernie constantly talks in tough-guy detective patois. A gun is a "lighter." (Why?) A safe is a "nut" and a safecracker is a "nutcracker" - which actually makes a bit of sense, I suppose. In describing a hangover, he says that his mouth feels like he has a "whore's drawers" in it. He seems incapable of speaking a simple, straight declarative sentence. Some readers find that the language lends verisimilitude to the story - German-speaker being translated into English - but a little bit of colorful metaphor goes a long way with me. It began to wear on my nerves after about a hundred pages.

This series is highly rated and praised by many critics and readers, including my husband who is not an easy grader. Kerr is sometimes favorably compared to Raymond Chandler. One can't judge a series by the first book. They often get better as the series progresses. March Violets was okay, but it may be that I'll find the later books more interesting. When I get around to reading them.

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