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Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels

Bernie Gunther novels - A Quiet Flame - Philip KerrPhilip Kerr’s series of historical novels featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther span the years of Hitler’s rise to power, German rearmament in the 1930s, World War II, the post-war years in Germany, and the flight of top-ranked Nazis to South America. Twelve Bernie Gunther novels have been published to date. A thirteenth, Greeks Bearing Gifts, is due to be issued in 2018.

Top Nazis figure in every one of these novels, and his portraits of them are convincing. His protagonist, ace homicide investigator Bernie Gunther, is in some ways a standard-issue tough cop like those who populated the crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. He’s a big guy who can usually take care of himself in a fight. He’s cynical—what used to be called a “wise guy”—who is prone to run his big mouth far more often than he should. He repeatedly finds his way to the beds of beautiful women. And, of course, he is brilliant at his work.

But Bernie serves a larger literary purpose. A social democrat who never consented to join the Nazi Party, he’s a foil for the never-ending parade of high-ranking Nazis he meets in the course of his investigations. Bernie isn’t just a non-Nazi; he’s openly anti-Nazi, and he doesn’t care who knows it. Somehow, improbably, he has managed to survive more than two decades in conflict with the Nazi leadership. His consummate skill as a detective saves him every time.

Below are the dozen Bernie Gunther novels that have appeared in the series to date. You can access what I’ve written about them by clicking on the link to the right of each review.

  1. March Violets (1989), set in 1936: A vivid snapshot of Nazi Berlin
  2. The Pale Criminal (1990), set in 1938: A serial killer in Nazi Germany
  3. A German Requiem (1991), set in 1947-48: Another excellent novel in the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr
  4. The One from the Other (2006), set in 1949: An anti-Nazi detective in Hitler’s Germany
  5. A Quiet Flame (2008), set in 1950: An eye-opening detective novel about Nazis in Argentina
  6. If the Dead Rise Not (2009), set in 1934 and 1954: From Hitler’s Germany to Batista’s Cuba
  7. Field Gray (2010), set in 1954, with flashbacks over 20 years: Bernie Gunther’s life in flashbacks
  8. Prague Fatale (2011), set in 1941: A hard-boiled detective in Nazi Germany
  9. A Man Without Breath (2013), set in 1943: Mass murder in the Katyn Forest
  10. The Lady from Zagreb (2015), set in 1942-43 and 1956: Cynicism and romanticism in Nazi Germany
  11. The Other Side of Silence (2016), set in 1956: An exciting chapter in the Bernie Gunther saga
  12. Prussian Blue (2017), set in 1939 and 1956: In Philip Kerr’s latest, Bernie Gunther confronts top Nazis and the Stasi

From a bestselling Danish author, an intriguing detective novel

cover of The Hanging Girl by Jussi Adler-OlsenThe Hanging Girl (Department Q #6) by Jussi Adler-Olsen

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In 1997, a beautiful 19-year-old schoolgirl is killed by a hit-and-run driver on a road near the school she’s attending. Somehow, her body is throw up fourteen feet into a tree, where it remains hanging until a local police officer discovers her days later. The officer plunges into an obsessive investigation into her murder that spans nearly two decades. In the process, he drives his wife and son away and alienates everyone else around him. Now, in 2014, he calls detective Carl Mørck of the famous Department Q in Copenhagen in hopes Carl will take up the case. Carl, predictably, rude as ever, hangs up on him.

Of course, we readers know well that Department Q will, in fact, take on the case. Carl is forced to do so the following day when his assistant, Rose, guilt-trips him with the accusation that his refusal to help the man led to his suicide. The team’s one-day exploratory visit to the distant Baltic Sea island of Bornholm devolves into an investigation that drags on for weeks. Painstakingly, Carl and his staff pursue one fruitless lead after another—until, at long last, their persistence begins to pay off.

Meanwhile, a religious cult led by a sex-crazed charismatic man is thriving, first in the Danish countryside and then in Sweden. “Atu Abanashamash Dumuzi”—obviously not his name at birth—leads a group of several dozen misfits pursuing the belief that all religions have a common origin in sun-worship. Their operations center is called the Nature Absorption Academy. The Academy is run in practice by a fiercely protective Finnish woman named Pirjo Abanashamash Dumuzi. Though the two aren’t married, Pirjo desperately wants to bear a child with Atu. And she is clearly prepared to murder any woman who threatens her primacy in the cult. “Pirjo became the last remaining disciple who’d followed Atu Abanashamash Dumuzi from the beginning, when he’d been in a completely different place in life and was called Frank.”

Unsurprisingly, these two threads of the plot will converge, but that’s a long time coming. Suspense builds all the way. And things do not turn out the way a reader will suspect.

The Hanging Girl is the sixth of the bestselling Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen‘s Department Q novels, and the sixth I’ve read. Adler-Olsen does a brilliant job with plotting, and his books cast a spotlight on Danish society that I find intriguing. In the earlier Department Q novels, I was charmed by the three characters who comprise the department: Deputy Chief Inspector Carl Mørck and his two (now three) assistants, Assad, Rose, and Gordon. All four of these people are annoying, each in their own way. And I must admit that I’m tiring of their antics. The Hanging Girl works nonetheless because the novel is so cleverly plotted and the author’s research into religious cults has turned up so much fascinating information.

Go to Jussi-Adler Olsen’s Department Q thrillers for links to my reviews of the whole series. You might also be interested in 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

Tough female cop takes on a Mexican cartel

tough female copThe Dime by Kathleen Kent

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Elizabeth (“Betty”) Rhyzyk is a narcotics detective on the Dallas Police Force. She’s a ten-year veteran, transplanted from Brooklyn. Betty comes from a family of Polish-American cops and is proud of her heritage. She has bright red hair, is nearly six feet tall—and graduated at the top of her class in the police academy back in Brooklyn. Betty is a lesbian and lives with her girlfriend, Jackie, a pediatric radiologist in a large Dallas hospital. But the male cops who work with her have long since learned that she won’t take any crap from them. In truth, she can probably best almost any of them in a fight.

Betty and her partner, Seth, are on a long stakeout at the home of a major cocaine and meth distributor. They’re “waiting for the arrival of the biggest cocaine supplier to North Texas, one Tomás ‘El Gitano’ (Gypsy) Ruiz, a Mexican national” representing the second-largest cartel south of the border. But the situation quickly spins out of control when one of the distributor’s neighbors calls the cops because he’s locked his dog in the back of his car on a fiercely hot day. So, when El Gitano finally arrives, he sees the distributor talking to a patrolman on his front porch—and machine-guns the two men, the neighbor, and one of the surveillance vans. The result: three dead, and one wounded young narcotics officer in the van.

These circumstances set off a complex investigation involving not just the narcotics squad but the homicide bureau as well—and the body count mounts steadily as Betty and her colleagues slowly make progress toward tracking down Ruiz. Little do they know, however, that they are about to stumble into a truly nightmarish encounter with a drug supplier even more fearsome than the cartel.

So goes the tale in The Dime, a crime thriller by Dallas author Kathleen Kent. As she explains in an author’s note, she had previously written only historical fiction. But a friend talked her into contributing a story to an anthology he was editing of local crime stories. And that short story gave rise to The Dime. Readers of police dramas can be thankful it did. The Dime is powerfully written, beautifully plotted, and suspenseful to the end.

For reviews of other novels in the same genre, see My 15 favorite detective novels. You might also be interested in 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

Inspector Rebus goes to London to catch a serial murderer

serial murdererTooth and Nail (Inspector Rebus #3), by Ian Rankin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A serial murderer dubbed The Wolfman by the press has killed and mutilated three women in London, one a month. The pressure is on the police to catch the killer before panic spreads further. Now, someone at New Scotland Yard has written to Edinburgh to request help from Inspector John Rebus, much to his surprise. Whoever it is has mistaken Rebus for an expert on serial murder, because the difficult case he had solved was very personal and held few lessons for other investigators. But orders are orders. And no sooner does he arrive in London than he learns from the radio that The Wolfman has killed a fourth woman.

Thus opens Tooth and Nail, the third novel in Ian Rankin’s venerable series of detective novels featuring Inspector Rebus. The trouble starts virtually as soon as Rebus makes contact with Inspector George Flight, who has been assigned as his partner: Flight can’t understand a word he says because of Rebus’ strong Scottish accent. Practically everyone else in the homicide department resents his having been called in—and they’re not the least bit shy about showing it. They can’t understand him, either.

No reader of the series will be surprised to learn that matters soon go further downhill. The disagreeable Scot manages to alienate all his new colleagues at Scotland Yard by ignoring established procedure and disappearing without explanation to investigate on his own. Since this is fiction, we’re confident that Inspector Rebus will eventually identify and catch the killer, and in short order. However, there’s a great deal of confusion and conflict before that happens, and Rebus is saved from arrest himself only because he manages to resolve the case.

In a sense, Tooth and Nail is a traditional whodunit, since many suspects surface in the course of the investigation and Rebus’ job, above all, is to sort through them to find the one who is guilty. But Rankin is a much more skillful writer than most. He manages to create a credible portrait of his difficult hero and to convey a sense that he fully understands police procedure. This is one detective novel that’s genuinely suspenseful to the end. The conclusion took me by surprise—and that doesn’t happen all that often. This is a very satisfying read.

 

Police corruption in suburbia

Police corruptionWhere It Hurts (Gus Murphy #1), by Reed Farrel Coleman

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

After decades of reading mysteries and thrillers, I still frequently encounter authors whose names are new to me—but are described as “bestselling” and sometimes have dozens of novels to their credit. Reed Farrel Coleman is the latest example. Author of at least 23 books divided among six series of crime novels, Coleman is the recipient of half a dozen literary awards. His latest series features John Augustus “Gus” Murphy, a retired cop in suburban Suffolk County on Long Island. Where It Hurts is the first in the series.

For most outsiders, Long Island is identified with the Hamptons and other wealthy New York suburbs. But, as Coleman writes, “most of the island isn’t about Gatsby. A current of poverty and violence roils beneath the surface here, too. A lot of senseless blood gets spilled. What off-islanders see is the 24-carat gilding along the edges where the money flows, not the fool’s gold in the middle where the rats race as hard as in the city and where the stray dogs lie in wait.” This is the territory Gus Murphy worked in uniform for 20 years in the Suffolk County Police Department. It’s also where his life has been unraveling for the two years since his teenage son died, his wife left him, and he resigned from the department. Now Gus works nights at a third-rate hotel driving a courtesy van to and from the local airport and serving as house detective.

When a pathetic ex-con approaches him about looking into the murder of his own son, Gus resists. Eventually, though, he is drawn into opening the case, which police have failed to investigate. As Gus begins to ask questions, he quickly comes up against a wall of resistance from his old department. First, he’s warned away. Then the violence starts, and more bodies begin to fall. Few of even his best friends on the force are willing to lift a hand to help him. Evidence of police corruption soon becomes obvious—and it may go all the way to the top, to the very popular Chief of Police, Jimmy Regan. Repeatedly risking his life, Gus persists in his investigation and gradually begins to recover interest in living. Along the way, he gets help from an old priest who has lost his faith and a woman who is ready to love him despite his wounds and flaws.

Where It Hurts is the first of what are now two novels in Coleman’s new Gus Murphy series.

 

Another great detective novel from Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear: The Mapping of Love and DeathThe Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs #7), by Jacqueline Winspear

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

It’s 1932, Maisie Dobbs’ third year in business as an “inquiry agent.” (That’s British for private detective.) As usual, Maisie’s life is complicated. Her assistant, Billy Beale, is working shorter hours to care for his wife, who has just been released from a mental asylum. Maisie’s beloved mentor and former employer, Dr. Maurice Blanche, is in declining health. And two attractive, wealthy men are pursuing her despite her reluctance to take time away from her work. Her agency is doing well even in the Depression. Then a friend she’d known from her service as a nurse in the Great War writes from America to ask that she help an American couple freshly arrived in London.

The Cliftons, it turns out, are in their late seventies. Edward Clifton had emigrated from England to the U.S. as a young man. There he built a huge property development business, in which their children are now assuming leadership. He and his wife just arrived from France, where the remains of their youngest son were uncovered in an old battlefield. Letters uncovered with his body reveal that the young man had had an affair with a young woman during the war. Maisie’s assignment is to locate her. But Maisie discovers almost immediately that the job isn’t just an old missing-persons case: a close reading of the autopsy report makes clear that Michael Clifton didn’t die in battle. He was murdered.

While spending time with the dying Maurice and navigating the attentions of two competing would-be husbands, Maisie sets out to determine who murdered Michael Clifton and identify his long-missing lover. Her investigation immerses her in the dynamics of the large and complicated Clifton family. Then, when the aged Cliftons are attacked in their hotel and left to die, Scotland Yard enters the scene. Maisie is then forced to collaborate with the detective who has caused a great deal of trouble for her in the past.

The Mapping of Love and Death is the seventh novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s delightful Maisie Dobbs series. (The reference to mapping in the title refers to Michael Clifton’s chosen profession as a cartographer and his work in a British Army cartography unit on the front lines in France.) As in its predecessors, World War I looms large in the background. Winspear deftly portrays the difficulty the English had to leave behind the terrible consequences of the war even a decade and a half later. However, the shocking conclusion to this novel reveals that future books in the series may take a turn toward the coming, Second World War. Given the skill she demonstrated in the first seven novels in the series, I’m looking forward to more from Jacqueline Winspear.

My review of Maisie Dobbs, the first novel in the series, is at A female detective like no other. The second, Birds of a Feather, is here: The cost of war hangs over the action like a shroud, and the third, Pardonable Lives, is here:  Maisie Dobbs: living the legacy of World War I. I reviewed #4, Messenger of Truth, at Class resentment in Depression-era England, and #5, An Incomplete Revenge, is at The pleasures of reading Maisie Dobbs. My review of the sixth in the series, Among the Mad, is Shell shock, madness, the Great Depression. You might also be interested in my list of 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

 

 

The first in a series of great detective novels

detective novelsKnots and Crosses (Inspector Rebus #1) by Ian Rankin

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

John Rebus makes his debut as a Detective Sergeant in the Edinburgh police in Knots and Crosses. He’s been on the force for fifteen years following a decorated career in the British Army and, for a time, in the original special forces unit, the Special Air Service. He’s a disagreeable sort, disliked by most of his colleagues. His superiors tolerate him because he’s proven to be such a good detective.

It’s that reputation as a skilled investigator that leads to his being assigned to the task force pulled together to investigate a pair of horrific strangulation murders of Edinburgh girls aged 11-12—the age of Rebus’ daughter Samantha. Like several others, he and his partner are assigned to menial tasks. For days, the team makes no progress at all until finally Rebus turns up a useful clue in long-overlooked eyewitness reports. His recognition for this breakthrough brings him to the attention of Inspector Gill Templer, the force’s liaison with the press. Their relationship develops quickly as the investigation lurches forward—and more girls are murdered.

Rebus’ father was a stage hypnotist, as is his younger brother Michael. Michael soon emerges as a major character in the tale, as does the investigative reporter who is convinced he is involved in drug trafficking. In fact, the reporter believes that John Rebus is also involved, and his obsessive pursuit of that belief complicates the detective’s life.

Knots and Crosses is a cut above the usual serial killer thriller. The suspense is palpable, and Rankin succeeds in making us care a great deal about his protagonist. It’s no surprise that he resurrected Rebus in a long series of sequels and is successfully continuing to do so to this day.
About the author

Knots and Crosses, was the first of Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus novels, published in 1988. Rankin was dismayed when the critics treated it as detective fiction. He had set out to write a mainstream novel. Presumably, he’s no longer disappointed, having won dozens of literary awards and sold millions of copies of his books. He, his wife, and their two sons live in Edinburgh near fellow writers J.K. Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith, and Kate Atkinson.

The original hard-boiled detective?

hard-boiled detectiveRed Harvest (Continental Op #1), by Dashiell Hammett

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Maybe he wasn’t the original hard-boiled detective. But he was certainly among the first. His creator, Dashiell Hammett, called him “the Continental op.” And the New York Times termed Hammett “the dean of the… ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction” in its obituary in 1961.

The debut of the hard-boiled detective

The tough guy made his first appearance in Red Harvest, the first of Hammett’s five novels. Hammett is better known as the author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, both of which are familiar to fans of classic films. But it was Red Harvest that Time magazine singled out, including the novel on its list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. Red Harvest was first published in book form in 1929, following its serialization in four parts in the mystery magazine Black Mask in 1928-29.

Hammett’s dated writing style

On reading nearly a century after its publication, the book comes across as distinctly dated. Hammett’s vernacular prose is grounded in the slang of the 1920s. The result is a style that seems as stilted as the over-precise diction of Victorian times. Here’s one character describing another minor figure in the story: “‘His real moniker is Al Kennedy. He was in on the Keystone Trust knock-over in Philly two years ago, when Scissors Haggerty’s mob croaked two messengers. Al didn’t do the killing, but he was in on the caper. He used to scrap around Philly. The rest of them got copped, but he made the sneak. That’s why he’s sticking out here in the bushes. That’s why he won’t never let them put his mug in the papers or on any cards. That’s why he’s a pork-and-beaner when he’s as good as the best. See? This Ike Bush is Al Kennedy that the Philly bulls want for the Keystone trick.'”

“Hard skin all over what’s left of my soul”

The nameless Continental op is an operative of the Continental Detective Agency, San Francisco branch, much as Hammett himself was a private investigator for the Pinkerton Detective Agency before he turned to full-time writing. He describes himself as “a fat, middle-aged, hard-boiled, pig-headed guy . . . I’ve got hard skin all over what’s left of my soul, and after twenty years of messing around with crime I can look at any sort of a murder without seeing anything in it but my bread and butter, the day’s work.”

A lot of blood on his hands

This is the cynical, hard-bitten investigator who turns up in the drab Western mining town of Personville. He’s been hired by the publisher and editor of the town’s newspapers. When he turns up that evening to meet the man, he learns that his client has just been murdered. The publisher’s murder turns out to be just the first of dozens of murders; Hammett stopped counting at 17. But it’s no coincidence that this murder epidemic erupts soon after the detective’s arrival in town. In fact, he proves to be the cause of most of them. A lot of blood is spilled in Red Harvest, and the investigator’s hands aren’t clean.

In the serialized format where the novel first appeared, it’s understandable that Hammett would find it necessary to keep the suspense and the violence coming throughout the book. However, for a 21st-century reader, the continuous drumbeat of murder can feel tedious. Red Harvest is pulp fiction, through and through. Thriller writers have come a long way since 1928.

 

 

 

 

The master of Louisiana noir

Louisiana noirCadillac Jukebox (Dave Robicheaux #9), by James Lee Burke

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Veteran detective Dave Robicheaux of the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Department is reluctantly drawn into a case involving the decades-old assassination of Louisiana’s leading NAACP leader. Aaron Crown is serving time for the murder but protests his innocence, and a Hollywood film crew seems bent on exposing the injustice of the case. Crown wants Dave to investigate. Simply visiting the man in prison opens up a hornet’s nest of mobsters, crooked politicians, and other assorted lowlife. This is Louisiana noir by James Lee Burke, the masterful stylist of the craft, who can equal anything written by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or Elmore Leonard.

In Cadillac Jukebox, the ninth in the Dave Robicheaux series, Burke’s familiar characters all reappear. Dave’s second wife, Bootsie, and their adopted Salvadoran daughter, Alafair, now 14, and the three-legged raccoon she keeps as a pet. Batist, Dave’s African-American partner in the bait and boat-rental business they operate on Dave’s bayou-facing home property. His violence-prone former partner on the New Orleans Police Department, Clete Purcel, now operating on the fringes of society as a bond enforcer and private investigator. As always, the notorious Giacano crime family lurks in the background. But the novel features a host of unique new characters as well, from former KKK member Aaron Crown to the probable new Governor and his wife to a large collection of lowlife characters with names like Mookie Zerrang, Short Boy Jerry, Mingo Bloomberg, No Duh Dolowitz, and Wee Willie Bimstine.

Burke’s facility with the English language never falters, whether describing the lush landscape of his home state or musing about Dave’s lot in life. “As a police officer,” he writes, “you accept the fact that, in all probability, you will become the instrument that delivers irreparable harm to a variety of individuals. Granted, they design their own destinies, are intractable in their attitudes, and live with the asp at their breasts; but the fact remains that it is you who will appear at some point in their lives, like the headsman with his broad ax on the medieval scaffold, and serve up a fate to them that has the same degree of mercy as that dealt out by your historical predecessor.”

And here is Burke describing the family of an incidental character in the tale. “His twin sister achieved a brief national notoriety when she was arrested for murdering seven men who picked her up hitchhiking on the Florida Turnpike. The mother, an obese, choleric woman with heavy facial hair, was interviewed by CBS on the porch of the shack where the Hatcher children were raised. I’ll never forget her words: ‘It ain’t my fault. She was born that way. I whipped her every day when she was little. It didn’t do no good.”

No wonder Stephen King gushes about Burke’s prose style! The Dave Robicheaux novels transcend the bounds of the detective novel. If anything can properly be called literature, this is it.

 

 

An anti-hero ex-cop takes on drug traffickers

drug traffickersThe Second Girl: A Novel, by David Swinson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Frankie Marr is not a good guy. After seventeen years on the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police, he was forced to retire when the brass discovered he had been helping himself to the drugs recovered in narcotics busts. Now, he works as a private eye to supplement his meager police pension. To feed his habit, he breaks into drug dealers’ stash houses to steal cocaine, marijuana, and prescription painkillers. Frankie persuades himself that he has everything under control because he resists using crack cocaine. “Cocaine is a monster,” he says, “but crack is the devil. You can keep the monster in a closet, but not the f**ing devil.” Somehow, he has managed to hide all this not just from the drug dealers and the detectives he used to work with but also from the plaintiff’s attorney who hires him from time to time.

David Swinson’s engaging detective novel, The Second Girl, opens as Frankie has just crashed his way into another stash house. In a futile search for drugs, he tears the place apart. Then he discovers a padlocked door that seems promising. Breaking it down, he finds a naked teenage girl trussed up on the floor. She has several track marks in her arm and has clearly been drugged. He frees her but has no explanation for being in the house. So, instead of taking her to a hospital or turning her over to the police, he drops her at the office of the attorney he works with.

Eventually, the girl is returned to her grateful parents in suburban Virginia. Frankie comes across as a hero. When neighbors of the girl’s parents learn the story, they insist on hiring him to search for their own missing sixteen-year-old daughter. Miriam Gregory is the “second girl” of the title. Frankie’s investigation into her disappearance takes him to the heart of the drug and prostitution rackets in DC. The course of his investigation is violent — and not all the violence is the work of drug dealers and pimps. Frankie proves himself to be little better than they are.

This is an unorthodox work of detective fiction. It’s only the author’s second novel and shows promise of better to come.