Written by Philip Kerr — The German policeman Bernie Gunther returns for his 10th outing. Fans of the series will know that the books are not in a chronological sequence and that Kerr has positioned Gunther as a man who served in World War I and II, and survived long enough to hunt down Nazis in Peron’s Argentina in the 1950s.
Here, Gunther has survived being sent by Joseph Goebbels to investigate the Katyn Forest Massacre in A Man Without Breath and also his mission for Reinhard Heydrich in Prague Fatale, shortly before the Deputy Reich Protector was assassinated. In his capacity as a captain in the Sicherheltsdienst (SD) Gunther is back working for Goebbels, but this time on a very delicate matter. The Reich Minister for Propaganda has developed a passion for a beautiful film actress and, aware that she yearns to know the whereabouts of her estranged father, seeks to curry favour with her by sending Gunther into war-torn Yugoslavia to seek him out.
Gunther goes there and comes face to face with Dalia Dresner’s father – a former priest, but now a feared militia leader who decorates the front of his villa with severed heads in plant pots. Gunther survives this nightmare, and reports back to Goebbels. Dalia is currently in Switzerland with her husband, so Gunther is despatched to Zurich to meet her, and lie about her father. Nothing must prevent her from returning to Germany to star in Goebbels’ latest film project.
Dalia is determined not to return to Berlin, but when Gunther makes an accidental discovery about her past, she relents, and the pair leave Switzerland. Goebbels is delighted with Gunther’s work, but the diminutive Minister for Truth has one last job for him. At this point there is a seismic twist in the plot which a lesser writer than Kerr might have fumbled with, but in his hands it is little short of breathtaking.
The author spoils us with memorable moments. The scene where Gunther meets Dalia is wonderful. The verbal sparring and sexual chemistry between the two must surely owe something to another memorable first meeting – that between Philip Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood in The Big Sleep – but Kerr’s version loses nothing by comparison.
The mixture of mordant wisecracks and bitter reflections on life and death make Gunther the most quotable modern anti-hero. He can be as bitter as gall; “As long as death’s black barrel-organ was playing, it seemed I would have to dance to to the cheerless, doom-laden tune… like some liveried monkey with a terrified rictus on his face and a tin cup in his hand. That didn’t make me unusual; just German.”
On other occasions he is more lighthearted, such as when he first meets Dalia, who is sunbathing naked on her lawn. “Eventually my own natural good manners persuaded me that – certainly after five minutes – I should have announced myself or at least cleared my throat.”
As in previous Gunther novels, we meet all manner of fascinating real-life characters, including a scholarly young Wermacht officer called Kurt Waldheim – who readers may remember as a President of Austria and Secretary General of the United Nations. The plotting is as taut as a bowstring, the dialogue sparkles with a life of its own, and Kerr’s historical research is unrivaled. Throw into that mix a haunting and melancholy love story, and you have a novel which is as near perfection as makes no difference.
You can read an appraisal of previous Bernie Gunther novels in our 2012 feature article. The Lady from Zagreb is released 7 April.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars