The Daily Telegraph of Saturday 31 October contains a review by Toby Clements of Philip Kerr's latest Bernie Gunther novel, If The Dead Rise Not.
The first paragraph of the review reads as follows:
In 1989 Penguin published March Violets, the first of Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels. It was set in pre-war Berlin and it inverted the convention of having horrible Nazis and charming Jews.
No it doesn't, not in my copy of March Violets. The paragraph ends:
Not only was this wonderfully transgressive, it also lent the novel a real sense of doubt as to the whereabouts of the moral high ground, quite a feat when the subject is National Socialism.
March Violets is set in 1936 and the Jewish characters in it are much more concerned with staying alive, and on the "right" side of the Nuremberg Laws than attempting to be horrible.
I quote from March Violets:
"The Jewish population of Dachau was never large, but in all respects the Jews were worse off......In an Aryan hut the death rate was one per night; in a Jewish hut it was nearer seven or eight.
Dachau was no place to be a Jew."
"The starving steal from the starving, and personal survival is the only consideration......"
I don't see much moral ambiguity in the narrative of March Violets, which clearly describes the absolute evil of the Nazi regime.
But then perhaps TC has confused his books and his idea of an "inverted convention" might possibly apply to parts of the sixth Bernie Gunther novel, If The Dead Rise Not, although the Nazis in it are never very charming for very long.
TC writes that:
Perhaps like his hero, the author has become too world weary and flabby, because for the first part of this one-in which he flashes back to Bernie's early days as a 'hotel peeper' at the Adlon, just before the 1936 Berlin Olympics [well actually 1934, two years before]- you find yourself crying "enough already!"
I get it that the Nazis were bad, I get it that Bernie does not like them. It is not only that it is unsophisticated, it is actively unsettling, because you have to stop yourself reacting against it and cheering on the Nazis.
I plead guilty to being unsophisticated because I don't think you can ever cry "enough already" when telling any part of the story of the Nazis, and the horrendous crimes they committed. They were guilty of possibly the greatest crime in history, they were not just "bad", they destroyed a thriving culture and murdered 1.5 million children altering forever the ethnic makeup of Europe from Salonika to Vilna. I would be astonished if anyone reading the first half of If The Dead Rise Not would be cheering on the Nazis, apart from those who always do still cheer for them.
But it was not only the Jews who suffered under that terrifying regime.
From March Violets, referring to those imprisoned in Dachau:
"There were Sozis and Kozis, trade unionists, judges, lawyers , doctors, school teachers, army officers. Republican soldiers from the Spanish Civil War, Jehovah's Witnesses, Freemasons, Catholic priests, gypsies, Jews, spiritualists, homosexuals, vagrants , thieves and murderers. With the exception of some Russians, and a few former members of the Austrian cabinet, everyone in Dachau was German."
I agree that in If The Dead Rise Not, there are horrible Nazis with a very thin veneer of charm, and indeed some horrible Jews, including Meyer Lansky, as well as some rather confused Cubans; after all there are good and bad in all races. But it would be clear from reading the book even to the most unsophisticated mind that Batista, Castro and Lansky are very much second division evil compared with Hitler and Stalin, or Heydrich and Eichmann.
TC does say some good things about the book, and he wants to learn more about Gunther's time with the SS in Russia. He thinks the numerous hints are not enough and that "Kerr really owes us another flashback, this time to the heart of Gunther's personal darkness in the Ukraine, rather than to the twilight of the Caribbean."
I could even forgive the bizarre understatement that the Nazis are bad, and apparent confusion over which book is which, if not for this passage;
'....Bernie in Cuba, just before the revolution, where he bumps into his old friends and once more finds himself involved in a murder investigation,********* '
There then follows a plot spoiler which reveals the murderer to anyone who knows anything about the history of crime fiction. I find it difficult to comprehend why a reviewer would do this, unless to prove to aficionados that he had read the genre.
This was a strange review of an excellent book, which won Philip Kerr both the prestigious and financially rewarding RBA Prize and the CWA Ellis Peters Award.
'Yes, I noticed that the rain was a little warmer than usual. At least a rotten summer is one thing they can't blame on the Jews.'
'Don't you believe it,' I said.
[March Violets: Philip Kerr 1989]