In 1936, Berlin is abuzz about the civil war in Spain and the coming Olympics. Hitler’s henchmen are crisscrossing the city to erase many of the outward signs of the anti-Semitism that fuels the Nazi regime. Under cover of false fronts and euphemistic names, Hermann Goering is building a fearsome air force and Heinrich Himmler is terrorizing the nation with the thugs he has recruited and trained in the SS and the Gestapo. Dead bodies are turning up in the Spree with disturbing regularity. For Germany’s Jews, obtaining the exit visas necessary for escape has become almost prohibitively expensive.
A powerful industrialist, a diamond necklace, and a double murder
Enter Bernie Gunther, a former police inspector and hotel detective, now a private investigator. Though an outspoken anti-Nazi, Bernie has somehow managed to survive in the darkening mood of the country. He is fondly remembered for cracking a headline-grabbing murder case while still on the police force.
March Violets (Bernie Gunther #1) by Philip Kerr @@@@ (4 out of 5)
A mysterious late-night summons takes Bernie to the palatial home of Hermann Six, one of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful industrialists. There he learns that Six’s beloved daughter, Grete, and her husband have been murdered in their bed and the safe in their home burglarized. Six is intent on recovering an enormously expensive diamond necklace without calling in the police. He offers Bernie a fee equivalent to several years’ worth of investigative work — to recover the necklace, not to identify the killer, which the police have undertaken to do. Bernie also knows it would be dangerous to turn down such a powerful man.
A vivid snapshot of Berlin under the Nazis
It quickly becomes apparent that the case is far more complicated than Herr Six has explained. First, it is clear that the police cannot solve the murder. Then first one, then another, troubling character in the drama comes to Bernie’s attention. Among them are Six’s trusted private secretary, a gorgeous film star, a pair of thuggish Gestapo detectives, an underworld criminal gang reminiscent of the Aryan Nation, and even Hermann Goering himself. Along the way, Bernie hires a new assistant, a glamorous young woman, with whom he falls in love. As the investigation unfolds, the complications multiply and threats to Bernie’s life emerge again and again. Though framed as a detective novel, March Violets works beautifully as historical fiction. Philip Kerr does his research.
About the author
March Violets, published in 1989, is the first of Philip Kerr‘s twelve novels in the Bernie Gunther series. It kicked off a trilogy (“Berlin Noir”) that he wrapped up in 1991. The fourth novel, The One From the Other, didn’t appear until fifteen years later, in 2006, following a long string of stand-alone novels. Kerr was an advertising copywriter before he turned to writing fiction. His work has included young adult as well as adult novels.
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