The 10th entry in Philip Kerr’s impressive Bernie Gunther historical crime series, The Lady from Zagreb (Putnam) finds the former Berlin homicide detective as one of many people who have come to serve Nazi masters during World War II, and who constantly strive to walk the narrow (and dangerous) path between following outrageous orders and maintaining some vestige of personal integrity. In his new outing Gunther does both. In the process, he alternates between solving more than one murder … and adding to the death toll himself when it proves necessary.
This tale begins in 1956, on the French Riviera, but initially has Gunther recalling the events of an earlier time — the mid-1940s — and his brief but intense relationship with a devastatingly beautiful Croatian actress named Dalia Dresner. The story soon returns abruptly to Berlin during that same era, just after the infamous Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich’s security chief in Bohemia and Moravia, was mortally wounded by Czech patriots, an act that incited horrific reprisals by the Nazis.
In the midst of this turmoil the Germans, of all people, have arranged an international crime conference, and its organizer, General Arthur Nebe, has tapped Gunther to be the keynote speaker. He’s been ordered to give a talk on a well-known case in which he ran to earth a notorious strangler. Gunther does not miss the irony of focusing on a lone killer’s actions in the face of the much more significant atrocities being perpetrated at that very moment by Nazi commanders. Adding to this macabre piece of theater, the conference is taking place at Wannsee, the very Berlin suburb where senior Nazi officials had earlier met to determine the fate of Germany’s — and indeed, Europe’s — Jewish population.
During the conference Gunther is introduced to Paul Meyer-Schwertenbach, a Swiss policeman and crime writer who takes a professional interest in Gunther’s work. Kerr’s protagonist is drawn reluctantly into playing host to the officer and his assistant during their visit. But when an elderly lawyer is murdered nearby, Gunther begins to wonder if those two might have been involved.
Meanwhile, Joseph Goebbels, the Reich’s Minister of Truth and Propaganda, has become besotted with motion-picture actress Dahlia Dresner. She’d been a star with German film production company UFA, but has since gone to live in Zürich, Switzerland. Goebbels wants her to make a film for him. The problem is, Dahlia isn’t interested. Goebbels dispatches Gunther to Switzerland with carte blanche to persuade her otherwise, but fearing that the headstrong ex-cop might, like so many before him, fail to return, Goebbels arranges for a hostage to remain behind as an incentive.
Complicating the plot further, Nazi General Walter Schellenberg “asks” (a word that has a special connotation in Adolf Hitler’s Germany) Gunther to pick up a brand-new Mercedes-Benz roadster from the factory and drive it to Zürich, a gift for Meyer-Schwertenbach. It seems that, despite their famous neutrality, the Swiss are involved with the Germans in some sort of arrangement, and Gunther figures the roadster is meant to sweeten the deal.
Before The Lady from Zagreb reaches its conclusion, Gunther will find himself in some very strange company, searching Yugoslavia for a Catholic priest, or maybe a Slavic war criminal — he’s not sure which — who’s trying to convince shadowy interrogators that he’s not a high-ranking Nazi officer, while he endeavors to avoid the Swiss police. It will require all of Gunther’s wits to survive, let along succeed in his several missions.
Left: Novelist Philip Kerr, photographed by Ali Karim
This yarn eventually returns to the Riviera in 1956, where Gunther will be reunited with someone from the events of the ’40s, before it reaches an end that fits perfectly with the jaded plot line and leaves the reader wanting more.
As we’ve come to expect from Philip Kerr, his latest book, though nominally a work of fiction, is based solidly and uncompromisingly on fact. The major characters are all drawn from the events of the day, and run the gamut from Germans to Swiss to Slavs to Americans, though in some cases the names have been changed. As a result, the reader is left with a clear idea of how things worked and who shaped them during the yarn’s time frame. And in a bonus at the end, Kerr describes the post-war fate of many of the real-life figures in this story.
Peppered with dark humor and dialogue fueled by its protagonist’s insolence, The Lady from Zagreb will have readers wondering constantly just how far Bernie Gunther can — or will — go before he crosses the line and prompts his Nazi bosses to get rid of him. Kerr has done the nigh-impossible: given readers an admirable figure who is more than a little flawed, and set his actions against a background of the brutalities of the Third Reich and all the other horrors of war. It is a superb example of “Nazi noir,” the narrative and dialogue echoing the glib, cynical interplay we have come to admire in the great period noir classics of the silver screen. With seeming effortlessness, Kerr weaves together a complex tale that moves from the corridors of the Nazi hierarchy, where everything is black or white, to the morally ambiguous arena occupied by generally ordinary folk on the fringes of power, people who are trying desperately to stay alive. The real trick is figuring out who belongs in which camp. As Bernie Gunther says,
Evil doesn’t come wearing evening dress and speaking with a foreign accent. It doesn’t have a scar on its face and a sinister smile. It rarely if ever owns a castle with a laboratory in the attic, and it doesn’t have joined-up eyebrows and gap teeth. The fact is, it’s easy to recognize an evil man when you see him: he looks just like you or me.
The Lady from Zagreb is, hands down, the best thing I’ve read for many months — if not longer. ◊
Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have appeared in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Crime Time, Reviewing the Evidence and Amazon.com. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.