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Sunday, February 24, 2013

NOW DEPARTING TEMPELHOF



 A Review of David John's FLIGHT FROM BERLIN



Sometimes  you have to get past a book's title to get at the heart of the tale. Flight From Berlin (Harper, 384pgs) by David John is such a book. The evocative title conjures images of racing through Berlin streets with Nazis on one's heels in a breakneck dash to freedom at the end of a nail-biting roller-coaster ride.

Well, that isn't this novel.

Given the city mentioned in the title, having the fist 60 or 70 pages of this short novel take place in the US and on board the ship carrying the Olympic team to Berlin is the first misstep in this mildly entertaining story. This setting is used so that the back story of the main characters - Eleanor Emerson, a rebellious female swimmer and cynical British journalist Richard Denham - can be introduced. This groundwork, in the hands of a more skilled writer, could have been handled within the context of the main plot and setting. Used in this way, the momentum garnered by the title is lost and it seems to take forever for the characters to actually reach Berlin.

Once they do arrive, the story begins to shine. Emerson has been kicked off the Olympic team for too much partying and has been recruited as a journalist where she meets and, of course, falls in love with Denham. Soon both are on the heels of important stories. The all too real treatment of Jewish athletes by the Nazis is well presented here but it is investigations the pair make along these lines that lead the novel's maguffin. No spoilers here but the search for this item puts the two intrepid reporters into the teeth of the Nazi machine at a time when the regime has put on its best face for the world in town for the games. This is the best part of the novel where the black heart of the Nazis is revealed through jarring scenes of torture, murder and intrigue.

History repeats itself, sadly, and the riveting intensity of the novel's middle section, like the lost impetus of the title, also falls by the wayside as Emerson and Denham head back to England for the next 100 pages of the story! Here the novel pulls a Hindenburg and becomes a struggle to finish. Not only does the change of venue and domestic bliss of the two main characters suck all the life out of the story, but when the tale picks up again with their making a deal with Heydrich for the maguffin, the tale begins to take ludicrous turns.

The deal is a simple one: they will trade the maguffin the Nazis are so desperate to get their hands on in exchange for the lives of a German-Jewish fencer and her family. A noble, selfless sacrifice, yes, but also, ultimately a questionable one as the maguffin could topple the entire Nazi regime! That aside, the deal is struck and then it's stupid time our heroes.

The first major gaff is Emerson's decision to head back to Berlin even though the Gestapo and the SD are after her. This plot point makes no sense whatsoever. She claims she doesn't trust the Nazis to keep their end of the bargain and that's a wise position to take even though, considering the circumstances, they probably would. After all what is the life a few Jews to them when compared with the damage the maguffin could do? What she hopes to accomplish upon her return to Berlin is not clear. Is she thinking that if she shows up, Heydrich will wilt under her evil eye and cave in? It's a stupid twist. But there's a dumber one ahead.

The exchange of maguffin for Jews is set for the border between Holland and Germany and will take place on the former's side of the border since Denham, at least, knows it's not a good idea to place oneself, willingly, into the hands of the Nazis. What follows is keystone cops stuff. The Nazi agents sent to make the exchange do not even bring the fencer or her family across the border. In fact, they are many miles away. Being the baddies they are, there plan is to come across the border, murder Denham and company and retrieve the maguffin. So what does Denham do when he tumbles to their plan? He drives across the border back into Germany!? This makes absolutely no sense as they are safe in Holland, and border guards are right there to help them at any time. Yet they feel compelled to slide through the checkpoint without saying a word about the murderous Nazis on their heels. It's at this point where the novel lost me. If John had simply shown the Nazis heavily bribing the border guards, then Denham's choice to go across would make some sense as they are in an isolated area with no help to turn to other than the guards. Instead they cross merely so the story can resolve itself back in Berlin.

The rest in predictable stuff. A few chases, close calls and then sweet freedom... aboard the Hindenburg. If you're wondering, at this point, what the ultimate fate of the earth-shattering maguffin will be, I think you can figure the rest of the story out.

Ultimately, Flight From Berlin is a middle of the road Berlin Noir entry. John is a first-time novelist and the book does manage to evoke the city and the period fairly well and the middle section is truly great stuff. As a whole, however, the book's many shortcomings overshadow it's high points. Flight From Berlin is not a must-read. But it is fair entertainment if you're looking for a few hours' worth of distraction.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A FRAGRANT BOUQUET


A Review of Philip Kerr's March Violets


It's only fitting to kick off the reviews with the novel that started it all. Philip Kerr's March Violets (1989) not only introduced us to Bernhard 'Bernie' Gunther but also re-introduced an English audience to the Berlin of the 1930s, and, in the process, gave birth to the genre that has come to be known as Berlin Noir.

The novel opens with Gunther, a WWI vet and former police inspector now working as a private investigator, rattling about Berlin as the city prepares for the 1936 Olympics. Gunther is watching a group of brownshirts remove coin boxes with copies of a Nazi-backed anti-Semitic newspaper as the monsters controlling Berlin seek to sweep what is happening in Germany under the rug for the sake of foreigners from around the globe in town for the games.

Right out of the gate, we are treated to Kerr's unmatched ability to immerse the reader in the daily life of this lost world. Telling the story in the first person is another component Kerr uses to make us experience 1930s Berlin, but it is his sharp eye for detail and intricate minute touches that transport us to the time and place where the Nazis are in the process of getting a stranglehold on German life. It is a city of fear, suspicion, betrayal and selfishness but it is also a city of great beauty where the citizens try to carry on while waiting for the axe to fall. Kerr's sets this mood extremely well and the reader finds him- or herself walking these paranoid streets of long ago.

Gunther's trade is the disappearance business. With so many people 'disappearing' daily into Gestapo cells or concentration camps, families and spouses are left ignorant of the fate of their loved ones and hire Gunther to see if he can learn anything about those who have gone missing. He soon has a new case, however, as a wealthy businessman hires Gunther to investigate the murder of his daughter and son-in-law during which a diamond necklace was stolen.

Gunther's investigation quickly leads him to Nazi conspiracies, murder, and the in-fighting between Goering and Himmler. Part Sam Spade, part Mike Hammer, Gunther is a world-weary, cynical protagonist who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. No knight in shining armor, Gunther takes the case at the outset because it pays well and has no desire to embroil himself with the Nazi government he hates. But it is that hate and a desire for the truth that leads him to risk his life to get at the real story. In the process he will come up against Heydrich in the first of what will be many run-ins and spend some time in Dachau for his efforts.

March Violets is an engaging read that pulls no punches. The novel's violence reflects a world where human life has no meaning and is unflinching in its depiction. Some may be put off by this, but this reader found the violence appropriate for the time. It seems logical that if Kerr has set out to show the black underbelly of the Nazi regime set against the facade of civility Berlin put on for the games, then today's readers need to see how precisely profound the hypocrisy ran in that turbulent time without the sugar-coating. Although graphic, the violence is not gratuitous, and that makes all the difference.

Another laudable aspect is Kerr's decision to make March Violets a German story. Many of the Berlin Noir novels that have followed on the heels of the original trilogy tend to tell their tales from a US or British perspective, an outsider's perspective, so as to spotlight the evils of the Nazi regime by showing it to us via fresh eyes. I believe this is also done to help sell the books to the US and British markets. There's nothing wrong with that, but Kerr's choice to tell his story through the eyes of Gunther allows the reader to experience the regime via an insider. And the case itself, murder and theft, has no ramifications for the world at large. March Violets tells a German story from the German perspective and leaves it at that. Given the works of various authors which followed, this is very refreshing for Berlin Noir readers.  
 
As for the novel itself, this was Kerr's first book and it suffers from some of the pitfalls of early work as to pace and with Kerr occasionally leaning a little too much on the tropes of the hardboiled tradition. As an enormous fan of Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald and Spillane (and many others), I have a profound affection for the hardboiled school, but Kerr, in March Violets, is reaching for something more literary in the book and what have become the clich├ęs of the tough dick can be distracting at time in this setting.

That said, however, March Violets is a very good novel and an engaging read. Gunther is a character for the ages and Kerr's portrayal of the Berlin of that time is exemplary in its thoroughness. Although not my personal favorite Gunther or Berlin Noir novel, the book is well worth the reader's time. Berlin Noir could not have gotten off to a better start.

Next week, I'll be offering up a change of pace. Instead of reviewing the next Gunther adventure, The Pale Criminal, I'm going to jump ahead and tackle David John's Flight From Berlin. See you in seven.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

THIS IS BERLIN... NOIR



AND SO IT BEGINS...



Welcome to the BERLIN NOIR blog. For those of you new to the genre, I'll begin with a few words of explanation. Berlin Noir was the name of an omnibus collection of Philip Kerr's original trilogy of novels featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther. The three novels: MARCH VIOLETS, THE PALE CRIMINAL and A GERMAN REQUIEM were all originally published separately to great acclaim but it was as a single, collected work that the novels really took off and gave the burgeoning genre it's name.



Since that release back in 1993, a host of other authors have prowled the tense streets of pre-war Berlin until, today, Berlin Noir has become a sub-genre of mystery fiction. Authors Jeffery Deaver, Jonathan Rabb, Rebecca Cantrell, David Downing, Joseph Kanon, David John and others have all added to Kerr's canon. And so has Kerr himself, penning six more Gunther mysteries to date.



Which is where I come in. I discovered Berlin Noir about eight years ago and was enthralled. Both pre-war and post-war Berlin has always been a fascination of mine and the same goes for hardboiled detective fiction in general. So you can see how Kerr's Gunther novels scratched  me right where I itched. I devoured the first three books and stepped away from the table wanting more.



And the hunt was on.



Over the years, I've stumbled across the works of the authors above from time to time and was delighted when Kerr began a new series of Gunther stories in 2006. I've seen Berlin Noir grow to the point where HBO is currently in negotiations to bring the Gunther books to the small screen along the lines of the current, award-winning Game of Thrones adaptations.



Seeing Berlin Noir grow into its own genre gave me the idea of putting together a one-stop source for fans wanting to explore the various works published in the last few years. That's what this blog is all about. The plan here is to review all of the Berlin Noir novels to date. There haven't been many but there has been enough to make tracking them all down a bit of a chore for readers and fans. So I've done the work for you.



Every week I'll post a review of a Berlin Noir novel, starting next week with my review of Philip Kerr's MARCH VIOLETS -- the novel that started it all and introduced us to Bernie Gunther. I have a fairly comprehensive list of more than two dozen Berlin Noir novels I've found and welcome readers to send me titles I may have missed so that no contributors to the genre get left out. I also welcome and comments and suggestions you might have. This blog is for the fans!



Welcome aboard. I hope you'll enjoy the ride.