WW-I comes alive

Famous fictitious characters have been made and marketed by thrillers. Those of the Berlin Noir genre are some of the most dynamic. Philip Kerr has contributed substantially to the genre’s rise and his Bernie Gunther ranks among the better known and loved characters.

Be it “March Violets” , “The Pale Criminal” , “A German Requiem” , “The One From the Other” , “A Quiet Flame” or the best-selling “If the Dead Rise Not,” Gunther has had readers in thrall with accounts of his various missions as a World War I (WW-I ) soldier , cop and PI (private investigator ). Known for his love of women, wine and the dangerous life, Gunther who is of German nationality, travels the world both willingly and unwillingly in pursuit of new adventures and to escape his past – some episodes of which still haunt him.

We first met the former German soldier – who fought with the Wehrmacht on the Turkish Front in WW-I and was a cop for the Kriminalpolizei – as a private eye in the pre-World War II years of Berlin in “March Violets” . Later, in “A German Requiem” , we find him re-established as a PI. In “A Quiet Flame” , Gunther flees to Argentina in 1950 and acquires an Argentinian passport after being falsely accused of being a war criminal. In “If the Dead Rise Not” , he continues his travels.

In this, Kerr’s latest offering, Gunther traverses Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba, wartime France, and the Gulags of post-war Soviet Union as Carlos Hausner. Here, he is put in the dock by the CIA, has to get out of the clutches of the French intelligence and negotiate with the Soviets as he tries to escape being hung for murder back home in Germany.

The novel is packed with acute and arresting observations of the people and establishments that Gunther encounters. Imbued with historical detail, it’s bound to satiate the appetites of those who fancy a thriller set in a historical frame.

And Gunther’s sardonic tone is a winner. Sample this: “I didn’t like Bernhard Gunther very much. He was cynical and world-weary and hardly had a good word to say about anyone, least of all himself. He’d had a pretty tough war . . . and done quite a few things of which he wasn’t proud… It had been no picnic for him since then either; it didn’t seem to matter where he spread life’s tartan rug, there was always a turd on the grass.”

However, the narrative moves back and forth in time, employing multiple flashbacks and fast-forwards in time and space – with the result that navigating the book and making sense of the story demands exceptional patience and mental gymnastics on the part of the reader . Unfortunately, not everyone, not even the die-hard crime detective junkie, might be willing to make such an effort through 468 pages.

Also, the first person narrative – a tool that can either captivate or put off a reader – is patchy. At times, it gets tedious as you might not be interested in everything Gunther has to say. But as there’s no other voice to break the monotony, you read on anyway. Embark on this journey only if you have lazy days to spare in the summer that’s upon us.

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