A Quiet Flame

by Philip Kerr

A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr X
A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2009, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2010, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Joanne Collings
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BookBrowse Review

A tight, twisting, compelling thriller that is firmly rooted in history

Anyone who's read the movie listings during the last few months knows that World War II and the Holocaust have recently been popular subjects for serious films. Obviously, many of us are still struggling to make sense of what happened and trying to make certain that these events don't fade into the past where they become merely a part of history, among so many other half-forgotten horrors. Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series, which began in the summer of 1936 with March Violets and now continues with its fifth entry, A Quiet Flame, takes us to the Buenos Aires of 1950 and, in the novelistic version of flashbacks, Germany in 1932, bringing us the perspective of a German policeman turned private detective, a man who is still working to understand what happened to his country, his friends and colleagues, and himself.

When we left him, in 2006's The One From the Other, Bernie was on the verge of fleeing 1949 Germany - the reasons are best left unstated (not to ruin the book from those who have it to look forward to) - for Argentina. Among his traveling companions is Adolf Eichmann, a man Bernie has previously noted looks very Jewish. Bernie himself is feeling old and, by the time he arrives in Buenos Aires, is having worrisome physical symptoms.

But Germans given sanctuary in Argentina are expected to earn their keep, and there's a job for him with the police once Bernie comes clean and admits who he really is. He's asked to investigate the mutilation-murder of one young girl and the disappearance of another. The murder has such disturbing similarities to two that occurred in Germany, which Bernie investigated, in 1932, that the Buenos Aires police fear that one of the Germans they gave shelter to after World War II may have brought his murderous ways with him. If Bernie agrees, he'll be treated by Eva Peron's own American doctor.

The plot allows Kerr to explore both Germany on the brink of Nazi rule and Argentina, a "very Catholic country" where "it is better to know everything than to know too much," as it works out its own identity under the rule of the Perons (who make appearances as characters). And when Bernie agrees to look into the disappearance of the aunt and uncle of a beautiful Jewish lawyer, the similarities between 1932 Germany and Argentina in 1950 become depressingly clear.

Kerr's first three Bernie Gunther novels (March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem) have been collected under the title Berlin Noir (although the third one takes place mostly in Vienna) and noir is certainly the key word. Bernie has a distinctive voice and the ability to distance himself, if only a bit, from his world through his smart aleck reactions and language:

"I'd heard a lot about Proust. One day I was going to have to find an excuse not to read him."

"[W]hereas Berlin had flaunted its vice and corruption, Buenos Aires hid its appetite for depravity like an old priest sipping from a brandy bottle concealed in the pocket of a cassock."

"I ordered a bottle of red wine, the kind I knew Anna liked, made of grapes and alcohol."

"'There are no murderers,'" I said. "There are just plumbers and shopkeepers and lawyers who kill people. Everyone's quite normal until they pull the trigger. That's all you need to fight a war. Lots of ordinary people to kill lots of other ordinary people. Couldn't be easier.'"

"I was keen to be someone who looked good in her eyes—not least because every time I saw myself in a mirror, my own eyes were telling me something different. And I'm not just talking about my appearance. I still had all my hair. There was even quite a bit of color left in it. But my face was hardly what it used to be, while my stomach was more than it had ever been. I was stiff when I awoke in the morning, in all the wrong places and for all the wrong reasons. And I had thyroid cancer. Apart from all that, I was just fine and dandy."

And, since this is noir fiction, Bernie gets to let loose on the subject of women quite frequently:

"I watched her go. I was glad to see the back of her. More important, I was glad to see her behind... In a different room and wearing a clean shirt, I might have tried slapping it. Some men liked slapping a guitar or a set of dominoes. With me it was a woman's ass. It wasn't exactly a hobby. But I was good at it. A man ought to be good at something." (The woman in question is Eva Peron.)

"She looked flushed and very grateful, which is the way I like my women."

"She wore... a matching long pencil skirt that made me wish I had a couple of sheets of paper."

"I... let the smoke curl into my eyes. I wanted to punish them for looking into her cleavage when what I needed most was for them to do their job and keep looking her in the eye so that I might get a better fix on whether she was telling the truth. But I guess that's how things like cleavages evolved in the first place."

Nazi Germany and Argentina under the Perons are places perhaps best visited from the safety of an armchair, but Kerr never stints on atmosphere and his books are a kind of immersion into place and time that can be hard to shake off. He's both an excellent novelist and gifted architect of mysteries and his dialogue is first-rate. As Colonel Montalban, Bernie's police boss says, "'To be a great detective one must also be a protagonist. A dynamic sort of character who makes things happen just by being himself. I think you are this kind of person, Gunther.'"

Montalban's right and readers are all the richer for it.

Reviewed by Joanne Collings

This review was originally published in April 2009, and has been updated for the February 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

Beyond the Book

To Read or Not To Read in Series Order

When I was a teenager, my mother gave me some advice which I almost immediately ignored. We were both avid readers who preferred reading to talking and most of our limited conversation was about what we were reading.

She had enjoyed English novelist Norah Lofts's trilogy about the history of a house and the stories of the people who had lived in it over a century. "Make sure," she said," to start with the first book." But when I went to the library, it was out, so I started with the second, then went back to the first. Although I still enjoyed the books, reading the middle before the beginning and then jumping to the end gave me a kind of Alice in Wonderland sense of disjointedness. It taught me a lesson: I always try to start a series at the beginning.

A few years ago, I made a rule for myself and then quickly ignored it. (Do I ever learn?) I decided I was keeping details about characters in enough mystery or police series already and that I would not start any new such series. That didn't work, so I modified it: I would start no series involving a protagonist who had no business getting involved in one murder after another. That vow was much easier to keep and, except for an occasional reviewing assignment, I don't think I've broken it.

(Although I've made no resolutions regarding series novels, much of what I've found about mystery/police series applies to them, and since their plots are likely to be more character and event-driven, without a central mystery to consume much of the plot, it can be even more confusing to start them out of order.)

It isn't always easy to start at the beginning, especially if it's a long-running series. It can be expensive and time-consuming and mean locating and buying a lot of earlier books or trying to get them through the library. Series that are introduced into the US midway through bring their own problems, as do books in a series with many years between them. For example, there's a gap of fifteen years between the first publication of Philip Kerr's third Bernie Gunther novel in 1991 and the fourth in 2006, but happily, all are still in print (see main review for details). This is when I become very grateful for the number of used books available on the internet.

I have a group of friends I consult about reading questions that intrigue me and I asked them about this. Most will go out of their way to start a series at the beginning. One person said that if she happened to start a series in the middle, she would than go back and read it from the beginning and even re-read any she had already read in the appropriate order. (I've done this once - with Ian Rankin's Rebus series - that I recall.) But another enjoys the occasional out-of-order experience and finds it can heighten her interest in going back and filling in the gaps, although she admits that this works less well with some series books than others.

I have no rule about when or if I stop reading a series, but I have dropped several (Sara Paretsky's and Sue Grafton's among them).

A more hidden aspect to the reading of mystery/police series is that one can lead to another (of course this is true of all books): An intriguing remark about Vienna made in A German Requiem, the third Bernie Gunther novel, made me realize that it is time for me to read Frank Tallis's series set there at the turn of the twentieth century. But the third was just published in the USA so I'm not far behind.

All our problems should be like this!

Joanne Collings

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Reviewed by Joanne Collings

This review was originally published in April 2009, and has been updated for the February 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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