Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Philip Kerr’s Bernhard ‘Bernie’ Gunther series is among the most well-respected of historical mystery series, and justly so. Set mostly in Berlin during the years just before, during and just after World War II, the series effectively captures that frightening and memorable era. Perhaps this is just my opinion, but I say it’s more than about time I included one of Kerr’s novels in this feature so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on March Violets, the first of Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels.
The real action in March Violets begins when former police officer-turned private investigator Gunther is summoned late at night to the home of Hermann Six. Six is a very wealthy and successful businessman who wants to hire Gunther to track down a diamond necklace. He then tells Gunther the story behind the necklace’s disappearance. Not long ago, Six’s daughter Grete and her husband Paul Pfarr were murdered in their bed, and their safe was rifled. The necklace was in the safe and Six wants it back. He makes it clear, though, that he isn’t interested in having Gunther investigate the murders themselves; he says that the police are doing that. But he doesn’t want the necklace to fall into the authorities’ hands because, as he says,
‘I love my country. And there is nobody who gives more than I do. But I simply cannot stand the thought that the Reich is to be enriched even further at my expense.’
Gunther agrees to the arrangement and begins his search for answers. Through his various contacts, he narrows down the list of people who might possibly have the diamonds. And since the murders can’t really be separated from the theft, Gunther asks questions about them too. The trail leads him through all sorts of seedy areas, low-class nightclubs and so on.
As the investigation goes on, Gunther comes to the attention of some unpleasant members of Berlin’s criminal class, who have no wish for him to find out the truth. And as he continues, Gunther discovers that those people are very probably working with members of Germany’s new leadership class, who are not eager to have that connection come out. In the end, Gunther finds out the truth about the murders and the necklace. His trail leads him to the highest circles and uncovers some of the real ugliness of the Third Reich.
And that ugliness is one of the important elements in this novel. This is a noir story and lives up to the sub-genre’s reputation for bleakness, at least in terms of atmosphere. The story takes place in 1936, in the lead-up to the Berlin Olympic Games. The Nazi party is in control of the government and people are truly afraid of falling afoul of the Gestapo. Kerr doesn’t sugarcoat life at that time and in that place. For instance, one of Gunther’s cases involves a client who’s trying to trace her son, who’s become a ‘U-Boat’ – a Jew in hiding. There are also scenes in which people – mostly Jews – are desperately trying to sell their jewels and other goods to get enough money to leave or at least to eat. And all throughout the book, there are examples of the vicious anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and sexim that permeated Nazi Germany. Even those who aren’t ardent Nazis themselves feel compelled to join in, and the effect is chilling.
This is a ‘hardboiled’ story too, so there is a measure of violence and quite a strong sense that no-one can be trusted. Readers who don’t like a lot of violence will be disappointed. That said though, the violence is not gratuitous, nor is it drawn out. It is ugly though, and unsettling.
Another element in this novel is the city itself. As Gunther tries to trace the missing necklace and uncover the truth about the murders, he goes to all sorts of different places in Berlin, and the reader travels along:
‘It was late, gone one o’clock, when finally I drove back to my apartment in Trautenaustrasse, which is in Wilmersdorf, a modest neighbourhood, but still a lot better than Wedding, the district of Berlin in which I grew up. The street itself runs north-east from Güntzelstrasse past Nikolsburger Platz, where there is a scenic sort of fountain in the middle of the square. I lived, not uncomfortably, at the Prager Platz end.’
Throughout the novel, too, there’s a stark difference between the real Berlin and the Berlin that’s been cleaned up and made beautiful for the tourists who are attending the Olympics.
There is also a thread of dark sarcastic wit throughout the novel. It may not appeal to all readers, but it does give a wry perspective on life in Berlin. For example, at one point, Gunther is in search of a regular informant:
‘I didn’t expect to find Neumann at the dump where he lived…but I tried there anyway. Kottbusser Tor was the kind of area that had worn about as well as a music-hall poster, and Admiralstrasse, Number 43 was the kind of place where the rats wore ear-plugs and the cockroaches had nasty coughs.’
Later, Gunther tracks Neumann down. Here’s just a bit of their conversation.
‘‘Look, Herr Gunther, can we make this quick? I’m going over to Karlshorst this afternoon.’
‘Oh? Got a tip, have you?’
‘Well, as a matter of fact – ’
I laughed. ‘Neumann, I wouldn’t bet on a horse that you were going to back if it could out-pace the Hamburg Express.’’
Despite his frank dislike and distrust of Neumann, Gunther does find him useful.
This bit of conversation, and Gunther’s feelings about Neumann, also reveal a lot about Gunther’s character, which is another important element in this novel. Gunther is no fan of the Nazis, and he has nothing but contempt for their violent anti-Semitism and their thuggery. In fact one of the reasons he dislikes Neumann as heartily as he does is that Neumann is happy to betray Jews in hiding if he thinks it’ll get him some money. On the other hand, Gunther is well aware of the power of the Nazi party. He makes the obligatory salutes (albeit sardonically whenever he can), he listens to the required broadcasts and so on. And he doesn’t try to ‘play hero.’ He does his best to negotiate the very dangerous minefield that is 1936 Berlin without becoming a ‘March violet’ – a latecomer to the Nazi party – or being drawn into the betrayal and violence of the era. He tries to maintain his ethics in a place and at a time when it’s extremely difficult to do so.
March Violets is an uncompromising look at Berlin during the ascendance of the Nazis just before World War II. The mystery is believable and Kerr draws the various plot threads together in a credible way. The character of Bernie Gunther fits right into the time and place of the novel, and it’s not hard to be on his side as he searches for the answers. But what’s your view? Have you read March Violets? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight:
Monday 10 December/Tuesday 11 December – Maisie Dobbs – Jacqueline Winspear
Monday 17 December/Tuesday 18 December – Project Nirvana – Stefan Tegenfalk
Monday 24 December/Tuesday 25 December – Betrayal – Karin Alvtegen