The blurb on Philip Kerr’s collection of three noir mysteries, Berlin Noir, compares him to John Le Carré and Alan Furst. I wouldn’t say that is an apt comparison. For one thing, the other two are writing in a different genre. For another, they are better writers. Still, if you like noir, March Violets has its own qualities.
This novel is the first in a series featuring private detective Bernie Gunther. It bears many of the hallmarks of a typical noir mystery. Its main character is a smart, wise-cracking tough guy who used to be a cop. It features beatings, untrustworthy dames, thugs, and murder. What makes it stand out is its setting in 1936 Berlin.
Bernie is hired by millionaire industrialist Hermann Six to find a family heirloom necklace. It was stolen from the safe of his daughter Grete and her husband Paul Pfarr when the two were brutally murdered in their beds and their bodies burned. Herr Six explicitly instructs Bernie not to look into their deaths but to find the necklace and return it to him. Of course, Bernie begins looking into everything.
Using credentials as a representative of an insurance company investigating the fire, Bernie soon finds out that Pfarr was a member of the SS, with a mission from Himmler to seek out corruption in the labor movement. That mission made him a lot of enemies. He also had some kind of friction with Herr Six, who is rumored to have ties to organized crime. In addition, there were unexplained problems in the Pfarr’s marriage.
Typical of noir fiction, the plot becomes very involved. The setting is convincingly evoked, especially the constant threat of violence for ordinary citizens under the Nazis. Bernie specializes in missing persons, and the novel makes clear that hundreds of people go missing from Berlin daily.
Since I am more familiar with classic noir, the novel occasionally struck me as too coarse, but that didn’t bother me as much as other uses of language. First, idioms with which I am unfamiliar are used constantly. Perhaps they are period German idioms, but they often seem clumsy and inapt, which idiomatic language seldom does. Also clumsy and inapt are Kerr’s many metaphors, for example:
The butler cruised smoothly into the room like a rubber wheel on a waxed floor and, smelling faintly of sweat and something spicy, he served the coffee, the water and his master’s brandy with the blank look of a man who changes his earplugs six times a day.
Perhaps this style of writing is meant as a send-up of traditional noir style, but it is certainly overblown and irritating. (To be entirely dated in my references, it sometimes reminds me of the passages read by Jeff Goldblum’s character in the old TV series Ten Speed and Brown Shoe, but those were explicitly tongue in cheek, and I’m not as sure about Kerr’s writing style.) Although at one point I considered putting the novel aside, I finally decided to continue, and found the book moderately entertaining.