A German Requiem

Back in the summer of 2015, needing something different for my trip to Chicago, as a lover of history I bought used copies of the first Bernie Gunther trilogy by Philip Kerr and I brought them along for the ride. Read the first two during my vacation and realized that these historical murder mysteries were just what I needed. With the first two volumes of the Berlin Noir series under my belt, I was looking forward to discovering where the author would take his stories and protagonist next!

And for some reason, the third installment, A German Requiem, just sat there on the coffee table in my living roomfor the next three years. Not sure why, but every time I looked at it I knew I needed to read that novel ASAP. I finally did and now I feel like a fool for waiting this long. And with over a dozen books featuring Bernie Gunther in print, I have a feeling I'll be reading more about him and his investigations in the future.

Here's the blurb:

Post-World War 2, Bernie Gunther investigates the murder of an American Nazi-hunter amongst the ruins of the Third Reich in this riveting thriller in Philip Kerr’s bestselling historical mystery series.

Vienna, 1947. Bernie Gunther had his first brush with evil as a policeman in 1930s Berlin and came to know it intimately as a private eye under the Nazis, when each case drew him deeper into the enormities of the regime. Now the war is over and Bernie is in Vienna, trying to clear an old friend and ex-Kripo colleague of the murder of an American officer. Amid decaying imperial splendor Bernie traces concentric circles of evil that lead him to a former head of the Gestapo and to a legacy that makes the atrocities of the war seem lily-white in comparison…

As was the case with the first two installments, it's the historical backdrop that gives the book its unique flavor. Though on occasions he is forced to rely on info-dumps to convey lots of elements, the author once again did a fantastic job recreating that particular period. It sets the mood and captures the political and social tension perfectly. A German Requiem occurs in 1947. The legacy of Nazism has left Berlin in ruins and the city is now under the administration of the French, the British, the Americans, and the Soviets. A lot of citizens live in abject poverty, and prostitution and black marketing are rampant. Eastern Europe lies under the yoke of the USSR and it's the dawn of the Cold War.

As I mentioned in my reviews of March Violets and The Pale Criminal, Bernhard Gunther is a tough, wise-cracking, and cynical private investigator. In the tradition of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, he could be nothing else. Sadly, too often in the first volume the narrative got bogged down in Chandleresque similes that brought nothing to the story and were just distracting, or even groan-inducing. I understand that, to a certain extent at least, these books are supposed to be some sort of homage to the classic hardboiled noir detective novels. But sometimes Philip Kerr pushed this a little too far and it cheapened the whole thing somewhat. The man can craft classic noir plots, full of complexity and tension, in a setting that sets his stories apart from his peers. Hence, I felt that Kerr could do without these similes and still shine. Kerr gave us a more well-defined protagonist in the second installment, and the same can be said regarding A German Requiem.

As I said before, Bernie is 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 didn't support Hitler's regime. The man is not always the most likeable of fellows. And yet, he remains the perfect protagonist to solve the cases on which he investigates, and you can't help but to root for the guy. His first person narrative continues to be one of the very best aspects of this series.

In A German Requiem, investigating in Vienna in order to prove the innocence of an old acquaintance arrested for the murder of an American officer, Kerr explores the hypocrisy of the American military forces. On the one hand, they are hunting down Nazi war criminals and on the other they are recruiting them to use them as spies. It was interesting to see how key elements of the Nazi regime supposedly died at the end of the war, but changed their identities and disappeared. The better part of this novel takes place in Vienna and Kerr's portrayal of how Austria fared during and after WWII was particularly well-done.

The pace remains crisp throughout the book and in true noir detective novel tradition, likes its predecessors A German Requiem is another page-turner that keeps you going, chapter after chapter, unable to stop yourself. This novel is another compelling blend of historical fiction and hardboiled murder mystery which is hard to put down. I probably won't be waiting this long to read a new Bernard Gunther case.

The final verdict: 7.75/10

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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