G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 432 pages, $16 (c2015)
“The Lady from Zagreb” is one of the finalists for this year’s Edgar Award for Best Novel. Philip Kerr began publishing his hard-boiled, noir series featuring detective Bernie Gunther in 1989, with “March Violets.” He quickly followed that much-lauded debut with two other books, “The Pale Criminal” and “A German Requiem.” They became known as his “Berlin Noir Trilogy.” Fifteen years passed before Kerr published another Bernie Gunther book, but there were six other books after that, and a new one is due this month.
Kerr has managed to create a wise-cracking, independent-minded protagonist — a non-Nazi, part-Jew to boot — and place him smack dab in turbulent Nazi Germany. Bernie often reluctantly rubs elbows with historical notables — in the case of “The Lady,” Josef Goebbels. Bernie’s Berlin explodes around him, but someone still has to solve the murders in a city in which “murder” has lost much of its meaning.
“The Lady” isn’t so much about murder as seeing the Nazi world from an ordinary man’s perspective. Many German citizens were just trying to keep their heads down and get by without running afoul of the more notorious and crazier members of the various political and military units, and Bernie is one of them. However, he has the clear-thinking talent of an observant detective, which he has been in both private and official capacities, and this has brought him notice in official quarters, for better or worse.
Kerr’s stories bounce around in time. In fact, one of his early books shows us Bernie hale and hearty post-war. Similarly, “The Lady” begins from Bernie’s perspective on the French Riviera in 1956, reminiscing about Swiss actress Dalia Dresner, the titular lady. Although she is mentioned in the prologue, we don’t actually meet her until a third of the book has gone by.
A dead body does show up not too far into the book. A lawyer has been murdered, clobbered by a bronze bust of Hitler. Bernie had been investigating ownership of an estate originally privately owned by the lawyer’s client and then “purchased” by a Nazi organization. But Bernie has no interest in becoming involved in the murder investigation and that case is not resolved — or even mentioned — for a long time. Don’t hold your breath.
Dalia is a protégé of Goebbels. On behalf of him — and who can say no to Goebbels — Bernie must locate Dalia’s father somewhere in Croatia/Bosnia/Yugoslavia. It has been a long time since she has seen him and she would like to be reconciled with him. “The Lady of Zagreb” should probably have been renamed “Cruelty in Croatia,” since the most compelling part of the book has to do with Bernie’s search through the violent and disturbing Balkan area.
The last third of the book has a few more dead bodies, courtesy of Bernie, and an old unsolved murder in Switzerland. But mostly “The Lady from Zagreb” is a collection of war stories. Almost as an afterthought, all of the murders are explained away by the end. Kerr’s dark humor is captivating, as always. He must have taken advantage of a sale on similes, because they dot his book like flies on a corpse. There is no doubt that Kerr is a great writer, and in “The Lady,” readers just have to give Kerr his head and follow down whatever path he chooses.
The only discordant note in the story, however, is how the gorgeous Dalia immediately falls for much older, ordinary Bernie. (It must be Bernie’s similes.) Even Bernie briefly considers that Dalia might have an ulterior motive for attaching herself to him. But, nah, who cares, this man’s man thinks. It’s a teenage boy’s fantasy/
Whatever the literary journey Kerr wanted to take here, I was on board.