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14 June 2015

Philip Kerr: March Violets

Inside Hitler's Germany in 1936
This is one of the best hardboiled police/crime novels I have read for a long time. It is extra special because it is also set authentically with great historical detail in Nazi Germany and seamlessly integrated with some of the key happenings and powerful personalities of that time.

Bernhard (Bernie) Gunther is a hard-boiled Berlin detective who served eleven years as a homicide detective in Kripo (Berlin's criminal police) and left in 1933 when the National Socialists started to purge the force of all non-party members. He is now a private investigator who spends most of his time tracking down missing persons, who are inevitably mostly Jews.

Gunther is not a Nazi (he gives the Nazi salute when needed because "it's not worth taking a beating for not saluting") and accepts that he lives in a world Nazi insanity where brutality has become commonplace. He is not averse to some brutality where necessary in his work, has a tough and rough sense of humour, is constantly cynical but has a pragmatic sense of right and wrong. At heart he is a true Berliner of the time, sometimes morally-compromised but acquiescing to but not actively participating in what is happening because opposing it is too painful to contemplate.

Bernie is asked by one of Germany's most powerful steel barons to find the murderer of his daughter and son-in-law, who were shot in their bed and their house torched. Before the murder a priceless diamond necklace was taken from their safe and the steel baron is just as interested in recovering the jewels as finding the murderer.

Gunther's investigations surprisingly get him tangled with Goering (in a cameo role) and in a more painful way with Reinhard Heydrich, the prime architect of the Holocaust, then head of the Gestapo, who are also interested in the robbery for a different reason. This lands Gunther in a Gestapo prison and later in Dachau concentration camp searching for the robber.

Kerr has crafted an excellent, heavily-plotted and frequently violent crime novel which is effortlessly set against the background of Nazi Germany in 1936 (including the Olympic Games). This is wonderful stuff for a crime-fiction junkie who loves his doses of history with a crime-fiction background.

"March Violets" (a term for people who joined the Nazi Party after they came to power in the March, 1933 elections) is Kerr's debut novel in the superb Bernie Gunther series (now #10) covering Germany during the 1930s, the Second World War and after the War. It is also the first book in the "Berlin Noir" trilogy where this book morphes easily and carefully into the next book "The Pale Criminal" set in 1938. I am already hooked and reading the next book in the trilogy. Highly recommended.

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