Day 1004: Half-Blood Blues

Cover for Half-Blood BluesIn 1939 Paris after the German occupation, Sid Griffiths and the members of the Hot Time Swinger’s American Band have just finished cutting a record when Hiero Falk, German but black, is picked up by the Gestapo and never seen again. In 1992, Falk, now considered a jazz legend on the basis of that one recording of the “Half-Blood Blues,” is being honored with the opening of a documentary in Berlin. Sid quit playing years ago, but Chip Jones, another member of the band, talks him into attending.

Chip has been Sid’s frenemy since childhood. He’s a great musician, but he’s also a liar. When he and Sid get up at the opening to talk about Hiero, Chip blindsides Sid with terrible lies about him and Hiero to the audience. The problem is, Sid did do something shameful to Hiero, just not what Chip accuses him of.

After the presentation, Chip talks the reluctant Sid into traveling to Poland. He has found out Hiero is alive and has even corresponded with him. As the two travel by bus into Poland, Sid thinks back to the events of 1939.

This novel is written in African-American vernacular that sounds fairly modern, even for the part from World War II. It takes a little getting used to, although I am not sure if it is accurate for the time. Certainly, the novel effective re-creates the feeling of the time and place, and the precarious existence of these young musicians.

This novel was on both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize lists. It was another book that I may not have chosen on my own but that I enjoyed reading.

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Day 460: March Violets

Cover for March VioletsThe 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.

Day 167: City of Shadows

Cover for City of ShadowsAlthough I have read and liked books from Ariana Franklin’s “Mistress of the Art of Death” mystery series, I think that City of Shadows, a stand-alone thriller about a different period, is particularly good. On a side note, I am sorry to hear that Ariana Franklin has died, so we will never learn what her plans were for the characters in her series.

Esther Solomonova is a mysterious scarred woman who works for the phony Russian prince and nightclub owner Nick Potrovskov in 1920’s Berlin. However, the book begins a step before we get to Esther, when a woman is being chased through the streets of Berlin and dives into a canal to get away. Nick hears that this woman, Anna Anderson, is claiming to be Grand Duchess Anastasia of the murdered Romanov family, so he decides to take her under his wing in the hopes of getting a share of the Tsar’s fortune that has been left in England.

Anna is in an asylum, and the inmates claim that every six weeks a man lurks outside, trying to get a chance to murder her. After Nick removes her from the asylum, people begin dying. Only Detective Schmidt pays attention to Esther’s theory that someone is trying to kill Anna, since the only evidence is the testimony of insane people.

Franklin does a convincing job of mixing the true story of Anna Anderson with the completely fictional murder plot. She evokes a real sense of the chaotic, anarchic, starving Berlin in the time in which Hitler is coming to power.

Day 155: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

Cover for In the Garden of BeastsBest Book of the Week!

In the Garden of Beasts is the latest of Erik Larson’s extremely interesting histories. In a couple of his books, he takes the approach of  juxtaposing two seemingly different subjects and showing how they are related, for example, in Thunderstruck, where he tells the story of Marconi and the invention of radio and how that affected the capture of the famous British murderer, Crippen. In other books, though, he has managed to make historical events more personal by relating them from the point of view or one or two people. Such is the case with In the Garden of Beasts, which follows William E. Dodd’s years as the American ambassador to Germany during the build-up of Nazi power before World War II (1933-1937).

The book is about the experiences of Dodd and his family as they witnessed the events of those times. It focuses mostly on Dodd and his daughter Martha, based upon their letters and memoirs.

Dodd was in many ways an uncomfortable fit for the position of ambassador. He was an academic–a historian whose previous position was chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago. He had worked his way up from extreme poverty and believed that he had not risen as far as he would have if he had come from a more privileged background.

Dodd was a personal acquaintance of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he requested a position as an ambassador of a small country from FDR, hoping both to add to his prestige and to be able to devote more time to writing his history of the South. In an ironic twist, though, he was offered Berlin, a much more demanding situation than he wanted and no sinecure, after several other candidates turned it down.

He saw his role as that of a reformer. He intended to live modestly on his salary and provide the other employees in the diplomatic service with an example of good stewardship of public funds, never understanding that his frugality was more likely to be misunderstood by his colleagues from more privileged backgrounds, who were the more usual occupants of such a position and who viewed him with disdain. In fact, some of them circulated a malicious and untrue rumor that FDR had made a mistake with the phone book and offered the job to the wrong Dodd.

The family was at first inclined to believe that the stories of attacks on foreigners and Jews by the SA (German Stormtroopers) were exaggerated. Frankly, they were also somewhat anti-Semitic. Martha admired the vigorous blond young men who were excited by the rise of Hitler, and she socialized with men in the Nazi leadership. In fact, she was quite the party girl, in every sense of the term. Dodd naively thought that he would have more impact on German policies if he maintained friendly relations with the country’s leaders, no matter what he thought of them personally.

It took Dodd an inordinately long time to recognize the truth about the kind of people he was dealing with, especially considering all his sources of information. However, when he did, he was at times heroically unflinching about standing up to the Nazi high command.

The genius of this book is that it relates history from the point of view of naive onlookers whose understanding of the situation and sense of danger grow slowly, rather than from complete hindsight. The book brilliantly conveys the feel of the time and place as the Dodds slowly realize the extent of the Nazi atrocities and begin to understand the growing terror of the German citizens. Dodd is an interesting character, a man who is sneered at by his staff and the Germans for his fuddy-duddy qualities, such as leaving state balls at 11 to go to bed, but who startles them several times by having the courage to stand up to Nazi leaders.