Thursday, July 03, 2008

Medium Boiled

March Violets, Philip Kerr, Viking, 1989

It's not clear to me that Kerr's book is great, but it is quite good.
March Violets, his first novel and the first book in his Berlin Noir trilogy, has an ambitious goal. To tell a Chandler-esque hardboiled mystery set in 1930s Nazi Germany. At times, you feel Kerr is focused on the mystery to the exclusion of all else, then there are times when he gets into the weeds of then-current German history and sociocultural aspects. Reading the book, it’s hard not to come away feeling like it was perhaps too ambitious a task for an inexperienced writer.

Well, what’s the point of being a young writer if you’re not going to take audacious risks? (For that matter, what’s the point of being an artist of any kind, etc.?)

Nevertheless, Kerr’s book is entertaining and interesting, even if you aren’t necessarily a fan of either of those particular subjects because of how well he weaves the two threads together when he’s on target. Enter Bernhard Gunther, former cop now turned private detective, a man who’s no friend of the Nazis, but he goes along to get along. When a wealthy industrialist, Hermann Six, hires Gunther to find and return some missing jewels stolen from a safe the night of the murder of Six’s daughter and her husband, the shape of a traditional P.I. story takes clear and obvious form.

Kerr throws into this the Six’s second wife, hot seductive actress who sleeps with the detective then puts another of her younger actor beaus on to intimidating Gunther, thinking Six hired the gumshoe to ferret out her infidelities. It’s a totally unnecessary plotline, thrown in there because you can’t have a detective who doesn’t score some primo booty apparently.

Along the way, of course, Gunther finds out that the real mystery is much bigger than that when SS Officers, Secret Police, military figures, and a Berlin crime boss all get thrown into the mix. Also, naturally enough, we learn along the way certain aspects of German culture of the time period, how it was still possible early on not to become a member of the Nazi Party, how Gunther is sympathetic to Jews and Gypsies and other second-class citizens, and what kind of noble knight’s heart lurks underneath our shamus’ hard-knock exterior.

Of course, it doesn't do a mystery any favors when I figure out the mystery pages and pages before the detective. Where the missing daughter’s jewels are is sort of a Macguffin on the plot, the real mystery being a missing person’s case or three, tied up with some very embarrassing financial documents of Six’s. The trail takes Gunther so far he ends up working for the Gestapo in a concentration camp tracking down the man who holds the key to everything.

But then I suspect the actual detective story here isn't as important as the historical portrait the author is creating of 1937 Nazi Germany. Kerr's prose is evocative of time and place, though he does have, in this first novel, a blunt style of pointing at the historical specifics, giving us a street corner address, then informing us that it was such and such, introducing Goering, then telling us who he is. This can be done better than it is done here, but what Kerr does do is enjoyable enough that it won’t be long before I’m picking up the middle book of the trilogy to continue the further adventures of Gunther.

There are some nice elements of Chandler-isms that don't rattle off like the stale clich├ęs that are SOP for detective satires. One favorite read, "I drove home feeling like a ventriloquist's mouth ulcer." There's a lot of sad poetry in that single line. It's just a shame Kerr's slow-moving detective didn't have a bit more like this in him and his prose. When you’re writing a book that by its definition leans heavily on an earlier style you either need a pitch perfect evocation of same or you need to one up it. Unfortunately, Kerr does neither.

Again, of course, it’s a first novel and can at least be excused some for all that. As a study in comparisons, one of Kerr’s more recent books, Dark Matter, was a lovingly done portrait of its time period and the best stuff in that are salted all throughout his deliciously entertaining prose. Here’s to watching an author grow.

(As one last note, the German Classic Romanticism that was one of Hitler's main, non-semitic obsessions, that sort of Young Werther thing, overlaps moodwise a bit uncomfortably with slouched hat, down-on-their-luck detectives. I'm hoping the next two books in his Berlin Noir trilogy explore this a bit.).

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