In the late 1980s and early 1990s Philip Kerr wrote three novels featuring German detective Bernie Gunther. He revived the character for another novel a couple of years ago but this is his debut. Gunther is a Berlin-based private detective and we join him in 1936 with Germany in the grip of the Nazis and the Olympics about to start. He’s hired by Hermann Six, a wealthy industrialist who wants him to look into the death of his daughter and her husband. The couple were murdered in their bed and the daughter’s valuable jewelry was stolen from the safe.
The case soon becomes complicated as Gunther discovers that Six’s son-in-law was working for the SS and that his safe contained papers that several very senior Nazis would like to get their hands on.
The story would feel cliched were it not for the setting. Stolen jewels, wealthy industrialists, illicit affairs, blackmail and so on are reconstituted in various combinations in all manner of novels of this ilk. However, the fact that all of this takes place within a society that is fundamentally corrupt and remorselessly violent lends an air of menace to proceedings.
Kerr’s depiction of everyday life under a Nazi regime preparing for war is both interesting and appalling. The casual anti-Semitism, the rapidly developing concentration camps and the social pressure to be seen to support the regime are all carefully sewn through the story.
Less good is Kerr’s fondness for colourful metaphors. It’s presumably an attempt to evoke Hammett, Chandler and the American noir writers - indeed my copy of this book is in a volume collecting the first three Gunther novels titled Berlin Noir - but it soon becomes grating.
It’s an enjoyable book and its slightly open ending makes me wonder what’s in store in the second novel.