One pleasure derived from characters and settings in the universe of noir mysteries is the sense that the protagonist sinks farther into his darkness than most people are ever forced to descend. Even if not of his own volition, being pressed reluctantly into his id makes returning to the proximity of the light possible, and hints that some will never resort to their darkness, and can live comfortably in their happy places.
Meet Bernie Gunther; an old-school private eye in 1936’s Berlin, he’s surrounded by people wholeheartedly, even joyously, wallowing in the darkest places of their souls. How’s a fedora-wearing gumshoe supposed to knock off bad guys, bed and discard dames, and squint through cigarette smoke at “good guys” who are worse than himself?
Kerr’s first Bernie Gunther mystery, March Violets, contains the ugliness of anti-Semitism, Nazi Party infighting, and concentration camps (KZ’s in the parlance). Much of his business is searching for ‘U-boats’–people who have disappeared, possibly into a KZ, or into canals as unidentifiable corpses. The so-called ‘German desire for order’ is in full flower, and the black Mercedes are waiting for any who question, challenge, or stand up to it. As a former policeman with a high-profile career and a veteran of World War I, Gunther can get away with it to some degree, but even he feels constrained to salute Hitler when parades pass.
Gunther has a reputation for discretion, so when the daughter and son-in-law of a millionaire industrialist are murdered, their safe burgled, and house destroyed by arson, he’s a natural choice to take on the investigation. Since it’s a PI mystery, he’s blocked at every turn, his motives are questioned, and he’s threatened by mugs and thugs of every stripe. He’s brought before the highest Nazi officials (including Goering, who envies Gunther’s supposed cinema noir lifestyle) as his search gets close to sensitive areas with implications for the Party. The end stage of the investigation puts him in the worst circumstance I’ve ever read in a mystery novel, one so unexpected that both Bernie’s body and soul are put into peril.
Kerr captures the look and feel of Berlin–the shops and restaurants on the streets, the trams and cars, the vibrant clubs where decadent jazz hasn’t been completely eliminated. Add the background of ubiquitous swastikas and street-corner boxes selling newspapers with vile caricatures of Jews and you’ve got a fair glimpse at the “garden of beasts,” keying in on “March Violets” who joined the Nazi Party after it came to power in 1933 and used it both to promote themselves and to wield the power of the State against their enemies.
Kerr’s writing has been favorably compared to Raymond Chandler’s, and I mostly agree. The way I read it, Sam Spade could probably look around and see some decent people trying to live ordinary lives. Bernie Gunther has no such consolation.
Check the WRL catalog for March Violets