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13 July 2015

Philip Kerr: The Lady from Zagreb

Josef Goebbels wants a favour 
I recently completed reading Philip Kerr's masterly trilogy "Berlin Noir" about Bernie Gunther, a hard-boiled detective in Berlin during the rise and rule of the Nazis. The trilogy was really outstanding because Kerr wrote heavily-plotted, hard-boiled and frequently violent crime novels seamlessly set against a fascinating background of Germany before and after the war.

This book is set in 1942 when Josef Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister was planning his next film. He is having problems persuading his favourite actress Dalia Dresdel (the only person to call him Joey) to return from Switzerland to star in that film. Goebbels asks a personal favour of Bernie because that is the only way she will agree to return - find Dalia's father in Yugoslavia and give him a letter.

There is no way in Nazi Germany for someone to refuse such a personal favour and keep their life, but Bernie soon finds out that his life may be just a much in danger in the killing fields of Ustashe-controlled Croatia.

In 1956 Bernie reflects that while Dalia still burnt an unforgettable hole in his heart there was always a small part of her that was a wolf. What happens in Switzerland and Croatia is only a small part of the story. For those of you who read #3 A German Requiem this book tells us, in a cameo event, how Bernie married Kirsten, also as a favour to Goebbels.

Bernie Gunther is one of the most fascinating characters in historical crime fiction. He was never a Nazi or a war criminal but went along with them because opposing what was happening was too painful to contemplate. He is not averse to some brutality where necessary in his work, has a tough and rough sense of humour, is constantly cynical but while he is sometimes morally-compromised he has a pragmatic sense of right and wrong. He is also a dedicated ladies man.

One of the greatest things about the series is Kerr's almost insider knowledge of Nazi Germany and the war and his ability to place Gunther within that environment, with personal contact with some of the worst Nazi criminals.

After writing the first 3 books in the series Kerr took 15 years to write another book, and The Lady from Zagreb, #11 in the series, was  written nearly 25 years after the first book. The wonderful thing is that this book is as fresh as the early ones and, while the initial trilogy would help to background Gunther's character, this book could also easily be read and enjoyed by new readers.

I will certainly be going back to other books in this remarkable series.

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