Monday, January 04, 2010

Off Topic---Detective Fiction: The Quiet Flame of Memory

A Quiet Flame: A Bernie Gunther Novel, Philip Kerr, Putnam Publishing, 389 pp., 2009, $26.95.

Do the names Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M.Cain, and Ross MacDonald ring a bell? How about Steven Saylor, John Maddox Roberts, Max Allan Collins? James Crumley? All writers of detective fiction whose entire series are on CWL's personal bookshelf. Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and MacDonald founded and extended the 'hard boiled/noir' genre of detective fiction. Saylor and Roberts have set this genre in the Roman Empire. Collins offers Prohibition/Depression/WWII and post WWII era Chicago, Crumley has set his his hard boiled/noir detective in Montana and Texas. They are masters of their trade.

Philip Kerr's detective, Bernie Gunther, fought as a late teen in the WWI trenches, joined the Berlin police force during the Wiemar Republic era and made some very difficult choices during the early 1930s as cop who did not kowtow to the Nazi regime. Kerr does not 'grind out' a Bernie Gunther novel every year. March Violets (1989), A Pale Criminal (1990), A German Requiem (1991), The One From The Other (2006), A Quiet Flame(2009), If The Dead Be Not Raised (2010).

The political violence and crimes as well as the sexual cabaret of Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s is the environment of Bernie Gunther. The cast includes historic and fiction characters. A Quiet Flame combines two stories, one set in the early 1930s Germany and one set in the late 1940s Argentina. Josef Mengele, Adolf Eichmann, Otto Skorzeny, and Hans Kammler have crucial parts in the plot but Kerr does not make it about them on every page. One of Kerr's many strengths is that he shows these Nazi in small glimpses that are crucial to the plot.

Bernie Gunther is not a high minded copper weighted down by dogmas. His notions of justice, fairness, love, duty and honor develop through the course of his lifetime and in the context of the society and culture of his era. Gunther relies on what he has learned from his father, his police mentors and the women in his life. Gunter's search for criminals is also a search for a 'usable past' (to borrow a phrase from American historian Carl Becker who coined the phrase in his 1935 essay Every Man His Own Historian). It is an immediate past of the victim, the recent past of the perpetrator and personal life history of the detective.

Readers of Kerr's 'Berlin Noir' series enjoy a fine detective story, an immersion in German social history and the complexity of very subtle evil.

No comments: