Cover image of "The Lady from Zagreb," a novel about a detective in Nazi Germany

Philip Kerr has written a series of eleven novels featuring homicide detective Bernie Gunther in Nazi Germany. I hope there will be more. It’s hard to resist characters who would think such things as this: “Being a Berlin cop in 1942 was a little like putting down mousetraps in a cage full of tigers.” Or this: “The Nazis were like syphilis; ignoring them and hoping everything would get better by itself had never been a realistic option.”

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

In The Lady from Zagreb, the tenth book in the series, Bernie at age 47 once again finds himself caught in the middle of high-level rivalries within the Nazi leadership. In the past, he’s been pressed into service by both Hermann Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, two of the most notorious of Hitler’s henchmen. Now he is summoned to the office of Minister of Truth and Propaganda Josef Goebbels. His assignment is to take on a job for the beautiful actress Goebbels wants to star in one of his movies. Not so incidentally, “Doctor” Goebbels — his doctorate is in 19th century German literature — also hopes to take the actress to bed. Having gotten to know Bernie quite well over the years, we’re not surprised that Bernie himself rather than the minister later wins the actress’ heart.

The Lady from Zagreb (Bernie Gunther #10) by Philip Kerr ★★★★★

The actress who is “the lady from Zagreb” is Yugoslavian but uses the German-sounding screen name Dalia Dresner. To fulfill his obligation to Goebbels, and to oblige Dalia, Bernie agrees to travel to Yugoslavia to locate Dalia’s long-estranged father and deliver a letter to him. The assignment is, of course, fraught with difficulties. On his journey to the south, Bernie visits the notorious Croatian concentration camp at Jasenovac, where “between eighty thousand and one hundred thousand Jews, Serbs, and Gypsies were brutally murdered . . . It was not a concentration camp, or a death camp like Auschwitz, but a murder camp where sadists [led by] three priests could refine their cruelty.”

There, Bernie comes face-to-face with the psychopaths who set the tone for the Croatian Ustaše, which may well have been the only organization in all of Europe to rival the SS for cruelty and barbarism. Bernie’s time in Croatia gives us a window into the extraordinary complexity of World War II in that part of the world. What we observe through his eyes lends insight to the wars that broke through to the surface in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

A plot built around historical people and events

Once again, Kerr builds his plot around the lives and actions of real people and of historical events. Though Dalia Dresner is a composite rather than true to life, many other characters in the novel come straight out of the pages of history: Arthur Nebe, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, “Gestapo” Müller, Walter Schellenberg, and later United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim as well as Josef Goebbels, Nazis every one of them. Allen Dulles shows up, too, and both Himmler and Hitler remain constant presences in the background.

In addition to the presence of historical figures and real-life circumstances, there are two things you can count on in any one of the Bernie Gunther novels. First, he will fall in love with a beautiful woman and have a torrid affair with her. Second, the uneasy mix of cynicism and romanticism that quarrel in his brain will show up in the witty remarks that he utters virtually non-stop even in the presence of men who can have him executed at the snap of their fingers. It’s all very entertaining. What’s more, it reveals a great deal about the roiling currents of German thinking during the Nazis’ twelve-year reign. It’s unreasonable to think that all Germans then were “just following orders” and completely blind to reality.

In a conversation with a Swiss intelligence agent, Bernie sums up his thinking: “Good people are never as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not half as bad. On different days we’re all good. And on other days, we’re evil. That’s the story of my life. That’s the story of everyone’s life.” As I said, Bernie’s a cynic.

For links to reviews of the whole series, go to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels.

My posts 10 top nonfiction books about World War II and The 10 best novels about World War II may interest you.

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