March Violets

Due to the disappointment associated with the last few novels I read this summer, I wanted to read something outside of the genre. I needed something different for my trip to Chicago, something that would grab hold of my imagination and keep me turning those pages. But not something too dense or sprawling. When I feel the need to step outside of speculative fiction, I usually go for thrillers. Yet I wanted to try something else this time around.

I love history and Philip Kerr's Bernhard Gunter novels have been on my radar for a number of years. When I found a few of them available on the cheap at a used bookstore, I realized that these historical murder mysteries were just what I needed for this trip. And I sure am glad to have given them a shot!

Here's the blurb:

Bernhard Gunther is a hard-boiled Berlin detective who specializes in tracking down missing persons--mostly Jews. He is summoned by a wealthy industrialist to find the murderer of his daughter and son-in-law, killed during the robbery of a priceless diamond necklace.

Gunther quickly is catapulted into a major political scandal involving Hitler's two main henchmen, Goering and Himmler. The search for clues takes Gunther to morgues overflowing with Nazi victims; raucous nightclubs; the Olympic games where Jesse Owens tramples the theory of Aryan racial superiority; the boudoir of a famous actress; and finally to the Dachau concentration camp. Fights with Gestapo agents, shoot-outs with adulterers, run-ins with a variety of criminals, and dead bodies in unexpected places keep readers guessing to the very end.

Philip Kerr's March Violets is a classic noir tale set in a decidedly unusual setting, that of Nazi Germany in 1936. It's that historical backdrop that gives this novel its flavor. Although he occasionally must rely on info-dumps to convey a panoply of elements, the author did a fantastic job recreating that particular period. It sets the mood and captures the political and social tension perfectly.

As a matter of course, Bernhard Gunther is a tough, wise-cracking, and cynical PI. In the tradition of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Bernie could be nothing else. Though there are now plenty of installments featuring this detective, March Violets was Kerr's first novel focusing on this protagonist and at times it felt as though the author is struggling a bit to find his voice. This is no longer the case in the second volume, The Pale Criminal, but in this one it sometimes felt like Bernhard Gunther is not as well-defined as he should be. Speaking of Chandler, too often the narrative gets bogged down in Chandleresque similes that bring nothing to the story and are just distracting. I understand that, to a certain extent, these books are supposed to be some sort of homage to the classic hardboiled noir detective novels. But sometimes Philip Kerr pushes this a little too far.

Although it's not without its flaws, both in terms of plotlines and characterization, the setting captivated me from the very beginning. A man of his time, made even harder by the demands of his profession and the fact that he was cast out of the police force because he doesn't support Hitler's regime, Bernhard Gunther is not always the most likeable of fellows. And yet, he remains the perfect protagonist to solve the cases on which he investigates. Appearances by historical Nazi figures such as Goering and Heydrich were also a nice touch.

The complex plot focusing on murders and theft will take the private investigator through every level of German society, from rich industrials to high-ranking and influential Nazi officials to gangsters and street scum. Understandably, the more Bernie digs, the more he uncovers dangerous political ramifications that could get him killed. The pace remains crisp throughout and in true noir detective novel tradition, March Violets is a page-turner.

Even though Philip Kerr is at times struggling to establish the voice of his main character, March Violets remains a satisfying blend of historical fiction and hardboiled murder mystery. I can already vouch for the fact that the second installment is better and more ambitious. Nevertheless, Kerr's March Violets introduces readers to a flawed but endearing protagonist and tells a compelling and convoluted tale of murder.

Looking forward to what comes next!

The final verdict: 7.5/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe. You can also get this one as part of the Berlin Noir omnibus, which contains Kerr's first three Bernhard Gunther novels: Canada, USA, Europe.

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