Lance Charnes's Reviews > Berlin Noir: March Violets / The Pale Criminal / A German Requiem

Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr
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really liked it
bookshelves: fiction-mystery-detective, reviewed
Recommended for: fans of noir, hardboiled PIs, or interwar European intrigue

Berlin Noir is a compilation of three full novels that together lay the foundation for Kerr's Bernie Gunther series. If you imagine Philip Marlowe dropped into pre-war Berlin with more sex, you end up with a rough idea of what you get with ex-cop Gunther and his milieu.

The first two novels in this omnibus take place in 1930s Berlin, while the third is set mostly in 1947 Vienna. In all three, PI Gunther ends up investigating crimes borne from the moral, legal and economic rot of the Nazi regime. Along the way, he meets, works for or chases nearly every major Nazi except for Hitler himself, makes whoopee with a couple different frauleins per book, and usually gets beaten to a pulp or otherwise damaged (he spends a spell in Dachau in one of the novels).

Kerr’s great strength is his Alan Furst-like ability to capture the atmosphere, attitudes and physicality of Berlin and the Germans in the 1930s. This is displayed most vividly in the third novel (A German Requiem): the first quarter takes place in postwar Berlin and is a vivid reconstruction of living on scraps in the midst of a haunted, ruined city, while the rest of the action moves to “alien” Vienna, which seems curiously less concrete and evocative. In all three, the dialog snaps with realism and is full of period slang (which Kerr rarely stops to explain – just go with it). Gunther himself is the stereotypical world-weary, cynical smartass PI we’ve read about in countless other entries in the genre; his narration, filled with hyperbolae, irony and sarcasm, is an entertaining enough way to pass 800+ pages, even when Bernie gets full of himself.

A few nagging problems cost Berlin Noir a fifth star. Bernie himself is one; he’s so familiar a character that we miss the opportunity to see how someone from a different culture would go about being a PI. He’s so outspoken – in public, and in front of major Nazi figures – about his disdain for the Nazis and Hitler that I kept wondering why he wasn’t headed for a concentration camp by page 150. Then again, hardly anyone in these three novels seems to believe in the regime at all; even the high-ups are cynical opportunists. It would’ve been interesting to present Gunther with a client who was a true believer, so our hero would have had to deal in a non-adversarial way with someone whose thinking was alien to his own. Finally, it seems odd that those in charge of a vast security apparatus would turn to a knight-with-tarnished-armor PI to chase down criminals. This is yet another thing you have to take on faith.

If you’re interested in the series, start here and read in order. Characters carry over between books, and events from previous books come up or figure in the succeeding ones. Just pace yourself. There’s probably a maximum daily allowance of interwar German cynicism you’re allowed before it does damage, and Berlin Noir will certainly fill that dosage with ease.
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Reading Progress

February 18, 2012 – Shelved
July 5, 2012 – Started Reading
July 26, 2012 – Finished Reading

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