Thursday, September 13, 2012

Q is for A Quiet Flame

The Bernie Gunther series, written by Philip Kerr, consists of eight historical mysteries set primarily in Germany in the years preceding and following World War II. The fifth book in this series is A Quiet Flame.  To this point in the series none of the action is set during the actual years of World War II, although there are references and flashbacks to that time.

Philip Kerr published his first novel, March Violets, in 1989. It is set in 1936 Berlin, just prior to the Winter Olympics. Two other books in the series followed in quick success, published in 1990, and 1991. The second, The Pale Criminal, is still set before the war. The third, A German Requiem, was set in Vienna in 1947.

Together they were republished as a trilogy: Berlin Noir. This description on the back of my copy of that volume is a good brief description of the three books:
Ex-policeman Bernie Gunther thought he'd seen everything on the streets of 1930's Berlin. But then he went freelance, and each case he tackled sucked him further into the grisly excesses of Nazi subculture. And even after the war, amidst the decayed, imperial splendour of Vienna, Bernie uncovered a legacy that made the wartime atrocities look lily-white in comparison...
It was not until 15 years later that Kerr returned to this series with The One from the Other. As much as I enjoyed the first three novels, that fourth book is my favorite (so far). That book takes Bernie to 1949, continuing to try to survive in post-War Germany, but this time in Munich. My review for that book is here.

A Quiet Flame, published in 2008, is split between 1932 Germany and 1950 Argentina. I hate to tell much about the plot because it could reveal some of the important points of the previous book. And this series is really best read in order.

Bernie has arrived in Argentina with an assumed identity, along with a lot of other Germans seeking asylum there. He ends up investigating a young girl's death, which is possibly linked to murders he investigated in 1932. Bernie's past as a policemen is more fleshed out, but I did not enjoy the blending of the two story lines as much as I expected to. It may have been the complexities of both plots that seemed a bit much to me, and I sometimes got confused about where Bernie was.

I did like the portion of the story set in 1932, going back to the years he was a homicide cop in Berlin, the time right before Hitler became Chancellor. As a background to the investigation, we see the tensions between co-workers who were on opposite sides and Bernie's despair over the the direction the country is taking.

The sections set in Argentina were also good (but gruesome). I am interested in why that country welcomed Germans who were hoping to avoid punishment for war crimes, and what life was like there at that time. I knew very little about that. Having survived all the years leading up to the war and getting through the war, Bernie accepts his life as it is at this point, but is willing to look under the rocks to solve some mysteries relating to missing Jewish immigrants in Argentina.

I wish I could describe Bernie's character well enough to convey why I love these books. He has done things he is ashamed of, in order to survive. But even after all he has gone through, he has a conscience. He has standards, and he won't let others control his actions. I love this passage, toward the end of A Quiet Flame. Bernie is listing all the things that he blames for the horrible things the Nazis did.
I blame Himmler and Goering and Hitler and the SS and Weimar and the whores and the pimps. But most of all I blame myself. I blame myself for doing nothing. Which was less than I ought to have done. Which was all that was required for Nazism to succeed. I put my survival ahead of all other considerations.
As I said in my review of The One from the Other, I find these books difficult to read. They are not uplifting. But for all of that, they are among my favorite books and I would not have missed them. And I will be reading the next three in the series in the next few months.

This post is my submission for the Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2012 for the letter Q.   Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for this letter.


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Thanks for this TracyK - I have long been thinking of picking up the Philip Kerr series (though the most recent one did get a bit of a critical drubbing as I recall) - sounds fascinaing.

TracyK said...

I try to ignore new reviews if I can so as not to be influenced, and this time I haven't even seen any. But I have wondered if he could keep it up. I want to go back and reread the first three ... it has been 6 years. But don't have time to read all the unread books.

neer said...

Haven't read this series as I tend to avoid (crime) books set in Nazi Germany. Under the guise of Nazi bashing, there is a demonisation of ordinary Germans which I do not like. But the Inspector's reflections have made me want to pick this up.

Peggy Ann said...

These sound really interesting. I have always steered away from Nazi things as my heart just can't bear the atrocities. I might see if the library has one and check it out.

TracyK said...

Peggy and Neer, Yes, this series is the most gritty and realistic regarding the atrocities at that time. And difficult to read. But I am trying to understand the problems of that time and how it happened. I am trying to read a non-fiction book on that subject (Richard Evan's The Coming of the Third Reich)but it is comparatively dry and very long.

Anonymous said...

Tracy - I'm so sorry it's taken me such a long time to visit your post :-(. You've picked a really talented author too. I happen to like Philip Kerr's work and his Bernie Gunther is a great character. In fact you've reminded me that I must put one of his novels in the spotlight, so thanks.

TracyK said...

Margot, I hope you do spotlight one of the Bernie Gunther novels. Since it was 6 years ago that I read the Berlin Trilogy, I don't remember much of the plot and I want to go back and re-read them. But there is not enough time to do that and keep up with reading the ones new authors, new series, series I want to finish, etc.