Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr (2015)

Bernie Gunther has had a tough 20th century. A born-and-bred Berliner, he fought in the trenches in the first world war. Now, in the midst of World War II, he is trying to navigate life in Hitler's Germany - between avoiding joining the Nazi Party and committing crimes for which he could not live with himself, he's not doing too well. Combine that with the food and booze shortages and the horrors he knows are occurring in various parts of Germany, Bernie's life is frankly not very fun. One day his old boss, Arthur Nebe, invites him for lunch. Nebe is a high-ranking Nazi official and, in the summer before meeting Bernie, had singlehandedly murdered 45,000 Jews. Yet, in another example of the moral ambiguity that characterises the Bernie Gunther series, Bernie still enjoys Arthur's company and is prepared to let Arthur buy him a nice lunch. Arthur enlists Bernie to present at an international policing conference being held in Germany (this is no joke - Nazi Germany held an international policing conference in the middle of WW2 which was attended by police from all over the world. If that were a plot point in a movie it would be dismissed for being unrealistic.). Bernie's speech leads to unexpected events, including the murder of a lawyer who wants to challenge the legality of some of the actions of the Nazi government, a liaison with a movie star and a trip into the very dark and very disturbing region of Bosnia and Croatia.

The Lady of Zagreb is the tenth Bernie Gunther novel. Chances are, if you're planning to read it you've read at least one or two of the previous nine (no-one seriously enters a series on the tenth book). Therefore, I think you will agree with me when I say that Bernie is an awesome character. In The Lady of Zagreb, Bernie is as hardboiled as ever, quipping non-stop and conducting himself with the moral code we've come to expect. This book is incredibly well written and well researched, and as with every other Bernie novel, I learned new and horrific things about what happened in Europe between 1939 and 1944. I heart Bernie Gunther, and The Lady of Zagreb did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for him.

However, this book required just a little bit more of me than the other titles in this series have. To be honest, I skimmed over chapters of the description of the horrors that occurred in Yugoslavia. Perhaps I could be accused of putting my head in the sand, but there is only so much evil I can take in one 400-page novel I am reading for enjoyment. Those scenes, while I'm sure perfectly accurately recounted, were really awful. Also, I did find it just a little hard to believe that Bernie would have got away with quite as much sass as he did. He said stuff to some of the most evil men in history that made me blink (and I'm not even a murdering dictator). Finally, Kerr really needs to lift his game in his depiction of women. The two here are complete cardboard cut-outs. One is literally just a plot point (I don't think she even has any lines) and the other sounds like a robot. I would totally sleep with Bernie (phwarrr!) so I get that so many beautiful women want him but even beautiful women can have more than one dimension.

That said, even a not-perfect Bernie Gunther novel is still better than most of the detective novels out there. Three and a half stars (and if you haven't read any Bernie books, start with Berlin Noir. They're really great).

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