It’s a Mystery: “I’ve got a mind like a comic book”
By Philip Kerr
By Philip Kerr
Philip Kerr writes masterful, dark, and complex thrillers, as evidenced by his Bernie Gunther novels. The One from the Other is his splendid follow-up, after a thirteen year hiatus, to the brilliant Berlin Noir trilogy (March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem). The One from the Other was published in hardcover in 2006, and a trade paperback edition has just been released. If you are only now discovering Bernie Gunther, you’re in for a treat. If you’re a fan, you might want to revisit him with this novel. It’s worth it.
The One from the Other begins with a prologue set in 1937. Bernie, a reluctant SS member, is working as a private detective in Berlin. Two cases come his way from the German high command. One involves transferring the worldly goods of a Jewish businessman to a Palestinian bank for a princely sum, a common practice in Nazi Germany that enriched Nazi coffers before the Jewish man in question could emigrate to follow his money. The other “case” is to accompany two intelligence (SD) agents on a fact-finding mission to Palestine and to spy on them. To Bernie’s amazement, this also comes with a nice bunch of change. He has no choice:
Everyone was throwing money at me. A thousand pounds here. A thousand marks there. I felt like an official in the Reich Ministry of Justice…. No one turned the Gestapo down. Not without some serious consequences. My only choice was between the disastrous and the unpalatable. A very German choice.
The bank business turns out to be surprisingly routine. Wandering in Palestine, so to speak, Bernie hooks up with two senior members of the Haganah (the Jewish militia and intelligence service) or, rather, they hook up with him. In the trio, he’s clearly the smart and sympathetic one. When the two SD agents travel to Cairo, so do Bernie and the Haganah guys. The fact-finding mission concerns the establishment of an independent state in Palestine. If it’s good for the Jews, is it bad for the Germans? The SD agents are meeting with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the highest official of religious law in Palestine. He’s fanatically anti-independence. Bernie infiltrates the meeting and gives a full report to the Haganah. They, in turn, seek Bernie’s advice on “handling” the SD before everyone returns to Germany:
I think you should make them believe that in any civil war with the Arabs, it’s Haganah that will win. Germans admire strength and they like winners.… Tell them you have artillery. Tell them you have tanks. Tell them you have planes. They’ve no way of finding out if that’s true or not. If they think you will win, then they’ll believe that their continued support of Zionism is the right policy…. Look, all that matters is that you convince them that a Jewish state can exist and that it would be no threat to Germany.
Bernie is now their mensch and, although he doesn’t know it at this moment, his Haganah connection will later save his life. Not so coincidentally, one of the two SD agents is a young Adolf Eichmann:
The most Jewish-looking man who ever wore an SS uniform.
There’s one more thing I always remembered about him. It was something of which Eichmann was very proud. When he lived in Linz, as a boy, Eichmann had gone to the same school as Adolf Hitler. Maybe it explains something of what he was to become. I don’t know.
Thus ends the prologue. We move to Munich 1949.
Bernie’s father-in-law has committed suicide, his wife Kirsten is in a mental hospital, and he’s “running” his father-in-law’s hotel in the medieval town of Dachau. The hotel is a seedy relic of a place with no guests. It’s a stone’s throw from the site of the concentration camp, now a residential settlement camp for German and Czech refugees. Poplars obscure the view of it but, like every former prisoner, Bernie’s time there is etched into his soul. In 1936, he was sent to the concentration camp by Obergruppenfuhrer Heydrich to find a prisoner the Nazis were very, very interested in. He remembers as if it were yesterday. Nazi reassurances of this being a temporary stay in Dachau just didn’t cut it:
My flesh turned as cold as a butcher’s shop window…working for me, said Heydrich, you’ll be sure to get out again… It merely remains to be seen if you can conclude this case successfully, not only as a matter of professional pride, but also your personal survival.
He concluded the case by a hair’s breadth with honor, the honor of having served the Third Reich. As Victor Laszlo said in Casablanca: “Honor enough for a lifetime.” As Bernie says in March Violets, the first of the Gunther novels:
How do you describe the indescribable? How can you talk about something that made you mute with horror? The starving steal from the starving, and personal survival is the only consideration, which overrides, even censors the experience…you were safe for awhile when it was another man who was being beaten or lynched; for a few days you might eat the ration of the man in the next cot after he had expired in his sleep. 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.
There you have quintessential Bernie. He’s the smartass survivor. He puts the hotel up for sale and sets himself up as a private eye once again. And a loner once again. Kirsten has died. She was his second wife. The first also died. Bernie doesn’t have much luck with wives. Or women, as in the case of the tall lady:
But for three small, semicircular scars on the right cheek, she would have been quite beautiful. Tall women are always better than short ones, especially the kind of tall women who really aren’t that tall, they just seem that way. This one wasn’t quite as tall as the hoop on a basketball court but a lot of her was just hair and a hat and high heels and hauteur. She had plenty of that. She looked as if she needed help as much as Venice needed rain.
Her name is Britta Warzok and she wants Bernie to find her husband Friedrich, preferably dead so she can marry again. He’s one of those legions of Nazi officers who committed unspeakable atrocities in the name of the Fuhrer. Bernie and Britta have lots of flirtatious small talk about love, marriage, and war. Frau Warzok gives Bernie her husband’s detailed SS record and two hundred in advance.
“Look After yourself, Herr Gunther,” she said reaching for the door handle. Mr. Manners got there first.
“I Always do. I’ve had an awful lot of practice.”
“When will you start to look for him?
“Your two hundred says right now.”
“And how and where will you go about it?”
“I’ll probably lift some rocks and see what crawls out from underneath. With six million Jews murdered, there are plenty of rocks in Germany to choose from.”
As it turns out, the trail of Friedrich Warzok is a first-rate setup with Bernie as the fall guy. He is beaten and mutilated—he loses his little finger in a grisly, graphic scene. He is then rehabilitated by madmen who are perfecting a vaccine they believe will save the world and need Bernie’s identity in the cause. The loss of his identity makes him a fugitive from justice. And to make matters more treacherous, there are a slew of thugs on Bernie’s trail. After a really ugly melee, he manages to escape, bloody but unbowed. With the help of the Comradeship, a Vatican funded organization—“providing a ratline for old Nazis and escaping war criminals”—Bernie gets on a boat to Argentina in the company of Eichmann no less and a few other unsavory rogues. Hardly sailing off into the sunset.
In The One from the Other, as in all Kerr’s novels, you can smell the depravity, and feel the evil. It’s hard to believe that he wasn’t there. His vivid use of metaphor engages the imagination. His dialogue is incomparable. It beats Raymond Chandler’s, to whom he’s been compared. In that vein, Bernie has been dubbed the German Philip Marlowe. I get the comparison, but I think Bernie is so much more. He’s not derivative, except when Kerr is playing games and letting us know it. Bernie is a true original.
The crown jewel of the Gunther novels is A Quiet Flame. It begins quietly. Bernie is in a safe house in Buenos Aires. It’s shabby, but Bernie is a beggar traveling under an alias and beggars can’t be choosers. Bernie is a beggar in a strange land. But not for long. He’s got aide-de-camp and driver Horst Fuldner by his side and/or watching his back. (Naturally Bernie suspects there’s more to Fuldner than meets the eye). Fuldner tells him President Juan Peron wants to see him. Peron’s inner sanctum is in a big pink building. Bernie gapes:
It looked like an Indian Maharajah’s palace I’d once seen in a magazine.” Pink, I said, “My favorite color for a government building. Who knows? Maybe Hitler might still have been in power if he’d had the Reich chancellery painted a nicer color than gray.”
“There’s a story why it’s pink,” said Fuldner
“Don’t tell me. It’ll help me relax if I think of Peron as the kind of president who prefers pink.”
Fuldner waves a security pass at the guard and they are in. Up the marble stairway he gets his first glimpse of Evita:
She was wearing more diamonds than seemed decent at breakfast.
In Peron’s office, Bernie decides that confession is good for the soul, or rather, in this environment, good for a long-term stay in Argentina. For one thing, he’s running out of money, for another, he hasn’t been feeling too well. He knows he’s not homesick. In his gut he knows he needs a good doctor. Time to shed his alias:
In spite of his declared admiration for goose-stepping, I found myself liking the president. I liked him for his slugger’s paw and his stupid little dogs. I liked him for his warm welcome and the easy way he had about him. And—who knows?—maybe I liked him because I badly needed someone to like. Which is why after pretending to be someone else…, I decided to level with him about who and what I really was.
This gets not only Peron’s attention but that of Colonel Montalban of Peron’s secret police (who has crept in on little cat’s feet):
“Gunther, Gunther,” he said, as though trying to shake a thought like an apple from a tree growing in the back of his head. “Yes, of course. I know you.”
“I was in Berlin. Before the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Studying jurisprudence at the university.”
His eyes narrowed as he searched my face for more answers. “You know you were a hero of mine. Believe it or not, you’re one of the reasons I gave up the idea of being a lawyer and became a policeman instead.” He looked at Peron. “Sir, this man is a famous detective.”
Bernie Gunther in Argentina has Montalban in Spanish pig heaven. There’s been a gruesome murder of a young girl in Buenos Aires. The M.O. is exactly the same as two murders in Bernie’s past (Berlin 1932) that remain unsolved. There is also a German banker’s daughter gone missing in Argentina. Montalban has big plans for his much admired detective, who’s ripe for emotional blackmail. Montalban “recruits” him into the secret police. There’s no such thing as a free clean passport. Or, for that matter, easy access to top notch medical care, which it turns out Bernie needs.
Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem
|Bernie is a busy boy. He’s on both cases. Could the serial killer from Berlin be hiding in Argentina and indulging in what he does best? Part of the deal is that Bernie must surreptitiously grill resident ex-Nazis. And he’s got to “keep the knuckles out of his voice.” Bernie gets some grudging help from Eichmann who he ferrets out in his less than grand hideaway. (If Wiesenthal had befriended Bernie, he’d have gotten Eichmann a lot sooner):
With friends like these…nonetheless Eichmann plays Judas and gives up the name of a “cruel bastard” who just might be the killer.
Bernie is now risking life and limb to get to the bottom of it all. He finds himself in the arena with champion villains. Behind the facades of Argentina, there is corruption, malevolence and greed, a repugnant lack of humanity or just plain decency. But, before Bernie’s moral compass gets completely broken, he meets a lady. She’s on one of his trails, and she’s in distress. Of course she’s a knockout and he’s smitten. He calls her “angel” (shades of Sam Spade). Hand in hand, they get into a lot of trouble. Never mind. One more nod to Casablanca—there’s a wow finish.
With consummate skill, Kerr moves back and forth to evoke the atmosphere of Berlin in 1932 and Buenos Aires in 1950. Kerr gets the most out of both locales. The Weimar era is painstakingly recreated in all its decadence. The flashbacks are chilling. Every atmospheric detail feels absolutely authentic. A Quiet Flame is a world class, edge-of-the seat thriller.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.