The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

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The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Julia Jones
Reviewed by Julia Jones
Summary: Tenth in a popular and critically acclaimed series. Sure to please aficionados.
Buy? maybe Borrow? yes
Pages: 464 Date: April 2015
Publisher: Quercus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781782065814

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The Lady from Zagreb begins and ends in 1956. Series detective Bernie Gunther is enduring a 'subtle kind of punishment' as he watches and re-watches beautiful Dahlia Dresner, a woman he has loved and lost. This is the tenth of the novels that began with the publication of the Berlin Noir trilogy (in the early 1990s) and within a few pages the action has catapulted back to the summer of 1942 and the heartland location, Nazi Berlin. Gunther wakes from a Luminal-induced sleep into a world that is black and white 'but mostly black, with silver piping'. He is employed in Reinhert Heydrich's SD (Sicherheitsdienst) but Heydrich has been assassinated and the fear and loathing and mutual suspicion among the top ranking Nazi officers is even closer than usual to paranoia.

Gunther is tainted by his own actions: everyone is tainted and degrees of guilt are only relative to whether your victims are numbered in the hundreds, or the thousands, or the hundreds of thousands. He is fully aware of what's going on – he knows better than most what it means when he sees a group of elderly Jews being loaded onto an early morning train bound for Theresienstadt. His characteristic cynicism has become somehow more febrile and more desperate than it was in the earliest novels. Although he clings to his self-image of the honest cop, the bluff, worldly-wise policeman whose pragmatic ruthlessness is still linked to a fundamental decency, this is becoming ever harder to maintain: he has sufficient honesty to ask himself directly, 'whose arse will you kiss to save your miserable skin today?' There's a Chandleresque quality to Kerr's writing and I thought I noticed some direct references to The Lady in the Lake.

The brief interregnum between Heydrich and his even more brutal successor Ernst Kaltenbrunner is being filled by an old police colleague of Gunther's, Arthur Nebe. A leisurely lunch on the Wannsee and a bottle of rare Mosel is used to persuade Gunther into the ludicrous position of making a speech at an International Crime Convention to be held at the confiscated Villa Minoux. There is no chance that Gunther will be allowed to refuse this invitation but the situation is complicated as he's being employed as a private investigator by the wealthy Frau Minoux while her husband starves in prison at Brandenburg-Gorden. Many of the top Reich officials are present at the conference together with some cultured but morally ambivalent Swiss delegates. Gunther makes his speech then one thing leads to another, and very soon to murder, as such stories often do.

Meanwhile the lecherous Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Truth and hands-on patron of the UFA film studios, has become infatuated with a beautiful Croatian – or is she Serbian? – star. Her stage name is Dahlia Dresner. She lives mainly in Switzerland but with a father still active in Croatia and she is playing hard to get. Goebbels needs Gunther's help.

The plot is complicated, the action wide-ranging and the characters ranging from unpleasant to monstrous. It's a difficult task for a novelist to write about constant acts of violence and brutality without slipping into the sorts of sensationalism that come close to a pornography of killing. I'm not sure that Kerr always succeeds but it maybe that I'm a little too squeamish. Kerr takes some pains to minimise the number of direct murders carried out by Gunther but the episode of the Gestapo farmer gored to death by his own bull may be too self-consciously ingenious.

Philip Kerr is a conscientious researcher and now an expert in his period. One of the problems one might feel in gagging at the violence in this novel is that the truth is likely to be even more unpleasant than the fiction. Many of the characters existed and the Author's Note at the end of the book is fascinating in itself. The action takes place in former Yugoslavia and in Switzerland as well as in Berlin. Everyday State-organised oppression and brutality begins to seem almost attractive – or at least more honest -- than the crazed ethnic cleansing of one country and the fat-cat complicity of the other. There were bouts of intense but, to me, unconvincing sex. I didn't totally succumb to Bernie Gunther's charm and uncharacteristically began to think of The Lady from Zagreb as a male reader's fantasy novel. I am certain, however, that Philip Kerr's period knowledge and novelist's skill will persuade many other women as well as men to enjoy this novel and to explore either backwards or forwards in the series – a new Bernie Gunther is already promised for 2016.

The obvious recommendation if you are new to Philip Kerr is to read more of the Bernie Gunther series but I'll put in a plea for The Winter Horses, a novel for older children. A thriller that takes an alternative, non-historical approach is Fatherland by Robert Harris and the actual history of the period is made accessible and interesting in Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital, 1939-45 by Roger Moorhouse.

Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther Novels in Chronological Order

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