Bernie Gunther, the indomitable Berliner at the heart of this great series, is a man pummeled by history. As a young man, he survived the trench warfare of the Great War. In the 1920s he became an admired homicide detective in Berlin, but his loathing for the Nazis led him to quit and become a private detective when they seized power. Later, a Nazi leader, needing an honest investigator, forced Bernie to join the SS. While fighting on the Eastern Front, he was captured by the Soviets and sent to a brutal POW camp. But Bernie, the eternal survivor, outlasted the war, fled to Argentina and, at the start of this, the seventh novel in the series, seems finally to have caught a break.
It’s 1954, and Bernie is 58 and living in Batista’s Havana under a false identity. He has money, a boat and, as the story begins, a delightful prospect. A bikini-clad beauty in her early 20s, desperate to flee Cuba, implores him to take her to Haiti. Bernie, as lascivious as the next man, eagerly agrees — but his fantasy ends abruptly when a U.S. Navy patrol boat stops them on the high seas. The girl is arrested because she has killed someone for Fidel Castro. Bernie is arrested because he’s wanted for murder in Germany. Soon he’s in the custody of the CIA in New York, where he is questioned, none too gently, by gum-chewing, crew-cut Cold Warriors who think he’s a war criminal. Even after Bernie convinces the CIA questioners that he hated Hitler, they continue to interrogate him about Nazis and communists he knew in the old days.
His months of interrogation guide the plot of this powerful, relentless, sometimes frustrating novel, as Bernie recounts his exploits during the Nazi era. The central story concerns his dealings with Erich Mielke, a real-life figure who eventually became a much-hated security chief in East Germany. In the novel, the two men first meet in 1931, when Bernie saves the young communist from Nazi thugs who are about to kill him. Their paths cross again during the war, and in 1954, when the CIA learns that Bernie knows Mielke, its agents demand that he return to Berlin with them and assist in his capture.
Mielke, however, is only part of the story. The author propels Bernie all across Europe to give us a panoramic look at life before, during and after history’s most terrible war. In occupied Paris, he enjoys the brothels and five-star restaurants eagerly serving the German conquerors. Assigned to the Eastern Front, he witnesses endless slaughter before he is captured by the Soviets and sent to work in a uranium mine. There, it seems, he and other prisoners will die of radiation so that the Soviets can develop an atomic bomb.
Throughout the novel, casual violence — a woman killed by a bomb while visiting her mother’s grave, for example — unfolds alongside massacres that snuff out thousands of lives. A woman Bernie loves is among the many Berliners gang-raped by Russian soldiers at the end of the war. Atrocities toward Jews are beyond number. A Nazi general tells Bernie that he, the general, must keep killing Jews so he will be trusted enough to lead a plot to kill Hitler; it’s the kind of insane, Catch-22 logic that Joseph Heller’s Yossarian would have understood.
The great strength of the novel is Kerr’s overpowering portrait of the war’s horrors. Its perhaps inevitable weakness is that we sometimes lose our way amid the avalanche of carnage, suffering and duplicity. The glue holding it all together is Bernie himself, our battered, defiant German Everyman. People try to kill him, but he’s too stubborn to die. He’s an angry man who comes to dislike the Americans almost as much as he hates the Nazis and the Bolsheviks. At one point, he bitterly tells his captors, “You’re much worse than the Gestapo. They didn’t pretend they were defending the free world.” Bernie’s a-plague-on-all-your-houses mind-set leads to the novel’s truly shocking ending, one that left me with no idea what lies ahead for him, only the devout hope that his story will continue.
Sometimes I tire of novels about the Nazis. For lazy writers, Hitler and his minions are an easy symbol of evil, one they find more useful than jihadist terrorists, drug lords and serial killers. But Kerr resurrects the past to remind us that the fascist mentality endures, all over the world, even though swastikas and jackboots are no longer its outward trappings.
Anderson regularly reviews crime fiction for Book World.
A Bernie Gunther Novel
By Philip Kerr
Marian Wood/Putnam. 435 pp. $26.95