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Have Gun, Will Travel
on March 21, 2010
Bernie Gunther, cynical gumshoe and knight errant, reprises his Philip Marlowe role as interface between the malevolent but pragmatic wing of Nazi Party functionaries, various tough guys and the clever but hazardous-to-be-personally-involved with (female) client. As before, many of the dramatis personnae are actual historical figures, the attention to historical detail is exemplary, the dialogue redolent of Raymond Chandler, the plot cunning and the denouement (this time set in pre-Castro Cuba during the Batista regimes' early end-game) is cleverly executed. In short, this is vintage Kerr and, as such, is well worth reading.
In the current story, initially set in pre-War Berlin (circa 1934) Gunther encounters a mix of real and fictional characters, including American "businessman" (well, actually he's a gangster) Max Reles, Nazi Police General von Helldorf, Gestapo agent Weinberger (nope, not a crypto-Jew, despite the suggestive name, a fact that assumes importance in the story), corrupt American Olympic Committee functionary Avery Brundage, several SS and KRIPO members and Noreen Eisner, femme semi-fatale and Bernie's romantic interest. This time, Gunther, while working as Adlon Hotel carpet-creeper, encounters the vivacious Noreen, a Jewish journalist working on a newspaper article which will demonstrate ongoing Nazi anti-Jewish behavior (akin to exposing corruption in the police; an exercise in exposing the obvious). Why? She plans to use the article as a vehicle in which the murder of a Jewish boxer will convince one-and-all that there are dire machinations between the AOC representative (Brundage), Max Reles and the German Olympic Committee Reichssportführer, Hans von Tschammer und Osten (who also serves as leader of the Deutscher Reichsbund für Leibesübungen and, not to be overlooked, is an SA Gruppenführer) all of which should convince the American government to cancel US participation in the Games. This all occurs, of course, with the connivance of a bewildering array of complicit agents on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the outstanding features of the Gunther series is its ability to acquaint current readers with some of the lesser-known but thoroughly nasty characters who have generally escaped historical scrutiny, Avery Brundage being a prime example of the type. This cynical, corrupt, sanctimonious and immensely wealthy scion of American nobility, inflicted his insipid presence on the Olympic scene right up through the 1972 Munich/Black September debacle. Under the guise of impartial sportsmanship, Brundage lined his pockets with public funds and undermined the integrity of the institution he was serving. Helldorf, who literally lost his head in 1944 when he fell afoul of his own plotting, is an almost Hollywood style Nazi, coming as he did from a "noble" family. Naturally, he was fond of indulging in all the debaucheries favored by most delicately decadent members of the elite (and so richly caricaturized by so many lesser authors) is another chap whose curriculum vitae should be known to all lovers of the noir genre. Reles, a Jewish thug, on the other hand, is a fictional character, but he is a stand-in for the sort of people Brundage and von Helldorf held near and dear.
So, having been introduced to the German side of the "If the Dead Rise Not" coin in the first half of the novel, what comes next? Readers of the series will recall that Bernie, late of KRIPO, the SS, the Abwehr and the US CIC amongst others, was implicated in the murders of two women in the previous story in the series, "A Quiet Flame". With the aid of the "Old Comrades" (ODESSA) and the CIA (Operation Paperclip), Bernie arrived in Argentina hoping to lead a shy and retiring life but (of course!) becomes involved in another dire plot. In the second half of "Dead", he surfaces in 1954 Cuba, where he again encounters Reles, this time as a member of the American "expat" criminal community which includes the entire pantheon of American Jewish gangsters (e.g., the Lansky brothers, Nathan Rothman) and select members of the Mafia (Joe Stassi, Santo Trafficante, etc, etc). He also meets the nefarious Lieutenant Quevedo, who has all the attributes of the sophisticated Nazis Bernie is accustomed to dealing with. He also encounters the mordant and occasionally helpful Captain Sanchez, analogue of the occasionally helpful Nazis Bernie is accustomed to dealing with illustrating that human nature has certain enduring refrains, regardless of which side of the ocean you live on. Bernie also, not surprisingly, again encounters Noreen, who resides at Ernest Hemingway's Cuban farm. Thus, we have the Cuban dramatis personnae.
As before, the book hews to the Chandler-Hammett-Ellroy style. This is not a criticism; its a compliment. So is the liberal use of Chandler-style dialogue. Here are a couple of examples: "As you can see, he might have been a Jew...Although from the rest of him, you wouldn't say he looks like a Jew at all", to which Bernie replies, "The strangest people are these days", or this lapidary Bernie-ism, "These days, a considerate German is someone who doesn't knock at your door early in the morning in case you think it's the Gestapo." Bernie says, "I'm not a Nazi. I'm a German. And a German is different from a Nazi. A German is a man who manages to overcome his worst prejudices. A Nazi is a man who turns them into laws." Kerr even borrows a lick from the Robert Towne "Chinatown" script: a body found floating in fresh water with salt water in its lungs ("Salt water bad for glass"). The meticulous attention to historical detail also continues from previous books and reflects diligent and comprehensive research by the author.
"Dead" is a really first-rank detective thriller. The sparkling dialogue, deeply researched history, cleverly contrived story lines and Kerr's unique ability to avoid the sort of self-parody that many modern mystery series writers eventually fall prey to command attention and respect. Perhaps in future installments, hoping there are some, Kerr will concentrate more on Bernie during the pre-War and WW-II years. Regardless, any and all these books are well worth reading.