Favorite genres are traditional mystery, police procedurals, espionage, Eurocrime, literary fiction and nonfiction history, especially WW2 and Cold War. I write about crime fiction at Read Me Deadly (www.readmedeadly.com)
This latest adventure of Bernie Gunther, cynical German gumshoe, takes place mostly in 1942, in Germany, Switzerland and Germany, with some flash-forwards to 1956 on the Côte d’Azur. The 1942 Bernie is back home in Berlin from his time in Smolensk as an investigator with the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau. (Yes, there really was such a thing, and no, of course the Nazis didn’t investigate their own genocidal atrocities.)
Coming back to Berlin is a lot better than being in Smolensk, but it has its drawbacks. Bernie, no fan of public speaking, is coerced into giving an address at an international criminal conference. He’s also once again summoned by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (whom Bernie calls––though rarely aloud––“Mahatma Propagandhi” or “Joey the Crip”) to do a little job for him. The job is to travel to Yugoslavia to get a message to a certain Father Ladislaus from his long-lost daughter, who is now up-and-coming film starlet Dalia Dresner.
Goebbels has a yen for Dalia, which is what prompts his insistence that Bernie should do this favor. When Bernie meets Dalia, he’s immediately smitten too and will do whatever she asks. Yes, even go to Yugoslavia. That’s a tall order during the war, when the Nazis’ allies, the Croatian Ustaše, were bloodily laying waste to Serbs and Jews, and every bend in the road could lead to an ambush by various flavors of partisans. Bernie’s visit to Yugoslavia is brief, but possibly even a worse experience than Smolensk.
The plot thickens back in Berlin, with Goebbels “asking” Bernie to go to Switzerland on another Dalia-related errand, and SS spymaster Walter Schellenberg adding a side job that turns into a spy/counterspy drama worthy of a James Bond film. If you’ve read the Bernie Gunther books, you’ll know that no matter how unrelated Bernie’s two jobs appear, their paths will converge at some point, and the meeting will be explosive.
Kerr wasn’t quite as skillful as usual in bringing his two story threads together. The Swiss story was far stronger, and I found myself wishing Bernie could have spent more time in Zurich, getting into trouble with spies of various stripes. The trip to Yugoslavia was almost perfunctory. And Kerr, who normally weaves history seamlessly into his story, presents the saga of Yugoslavia during World War II through a long and stilted chapter of expository speech from Dalia to Bernie.
But Bernie, the German Sam Spade, is his usual acerbic self. More than a little ground down by nearly 10 years of coexisting with Nazis, he’s still open to love––or a reasonable facsimile. As always, he’s the bottom-line reason for reading this series. It’s good to know he’ll be back in 2016, as Kerr writes in his Author’s Note, in a new novel to be titled The Other Side of Silence.
Note: I was given an advance copy of the book for review.