Part I of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy introduces former cop and private investigator Bernhard Gunther. Now, if that sounds like every PI novel you’ve ever read, consider that Gunther works in Hitler’s Berlin. Gunther has a lot of reasons to be cynical and hard drinking. For instance, the stiff-armed Nazi salute drives him batty.
Gunther is hired by Hermann Six, an industrialist whose daughter and son-in-law were killed in a fire. That’s not the problem. Six’s problem is that someone made off with a pricey necklace stowed in a safe. Gunther is hired technically by Six’s insurance company, who conveniently forget to tell the police about the necklace. For Gunther, it’s a collision course with the police, the Gestapo, and even the infamous SS.
Gunther’s conscience was not ground down by the poverty of the Wiemar Republic, nor does he give in to the euphoria over Hitler’s seemingly miraculous remaking of Germany. He is actually sickened by the state-sponsored anti-Semitism people casually accept. And yet he soldiers on among those he calls “March Violets,” Nazis who jumped on Hitler’s bandwagon after he became successful. He thinks the 1936 Olympics are a sham and secretly roots for Jesse Owens.
Perhaps most horrifying in the novel, Gunther is sent undercover to Dachau, the notorious “KZ” or concentration camp. As an Aryan, his plight is not as bad as the Jewish inmates. However, it is a place to avoid even as he runs across a man who got himself sent there to avoid being accused of another crime.
Perhaps the most unsettling part of this remaking of Raymond Chandler is how startling familiar 1936 Germany looks to the present day.