By Kevin Allman
Monday, March 22, 2010; C02
IF THE DEAD RISE NOT
By Philip Kerr
Marian Wood/Putnam. 437 pp. $26.95
"German history is nothing more than a series of ridiculous mustaches," grumbles Bernie Gunther, the sardonic cop-turned-private-detective who narrates Philip Kerr's latest novel, "If the Dead Rise Not." Gunther made his first appearance in a series of three books known as the "Berlin Noir" trilogy, for which Kerr drew comparisons to Raymond Chandler. But where Chandler got at the rot underlying Los Angeles's golden years of the 1930s and '40s, Kerr has a more obvious sore tooth to poke: Berlin in the years just after the fall of the Weimar Republic and before the beginning of World War II, when the Nazis were ascendant and "good Germans" were beginning to choose their words carefully, unsure how far or how hot this nationalistic forest fire would burn.
In Gunther's sixth outing, it's 1934, and Jews in Berlin are feeling the first winds of the Final Solution. Some are leaving the city, some the country, and others are just vanishing. The habitues of the louche life of the Weimar have disappeared as well, replaced by SS and Gestapo officers on every corner. In the very first chapter, Gunther gets in a fight with a policeman and accidentally kills him. His subsequent fear of discovery makes Gunther even more dolorous and wary than usual; as another character tells him, "Police states are bad for crime and bad for criminals. Because everyone's a policeman in Germany now. And if they're not yet, they soon will be."
Gunther, a former cop himself, now works as one of the house detectives at the posh Hotel Adlon, where much of the planning for the 1936 Summer Olympiad is being done. He has two immediate problems to smooth over: a married guest who died following a night of passion with a woman who wasn't his wife, and the theft of a Ming Dynasty box from the room of Max Reles, a German American in town on some mysterious business.
The bulk of Gunther's attention, however, is given to a crime for which he turns reluctant private eye. In one of the city's canals, a body bobs up, the corpse of what appears to be a champion boxer with the face of a poster Aryan. But the corpse is circumcised, and Gunther is disgusted to find that the new German police aren't interested in investigating the murder of a Jew. Gunther is sympathetic, but only to a point: "I had principles, sure," he says early in the book, "but I also had all my own teeth." Nevertheless, Gunther's investigation leads him to a ragtag river camp populated by Jews who have been driven out of the city, as well as to the site of the new Olympic stadium, which is being constructed by Jewish laborers who are doing the dangerous underground work.
There's always a woman involved, of course, and Gunther crosses paths with two femmes who may or may not be fatales: Dora Bauer, a Hotel Adlon "joy lady" with an eye on getting ahead in the world, and Noreen Charalambides, an American reporter in Berlin ostensibly to report on the upcoming Olympiad, but with a hidden agenda. Gunther falls in love with Charalambides and gets Bauer a respectable job as a secretary-typist to Reles, setting the stage for double- and triple-crosses that end up settled in classic-noir style on a lonely boat in the middle of nowhere.
The book ends with an extended section set 20 years later, in pre-Castro Havana, where Gunther and several of the characters are reunited for a second denouement -- one that adds some interesting detail but ultimately weakens the main story; it feels like a separate novella.
The greatest strengths of "If the Dead Rise Not" are Kerr's portrait of a chilly, ominous Berlin -- and Bernie Gunther himself, whose way with a cynical one-liner never palls. As he sums up his philosophy: "Some people like to believe in a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. I'm the type who thinks the pot of gold is being watched by four cops in a car."
Allman frequently reviews mysteries for Book World.