Kerr, Philip - 'The Lady from Zagreb'
THE LADY FROM ZAGREB is the tenth book in the Bernie Gunther series from Scottish author Philip Kerr. The series started in 1989 with MARCH VIOLETS, and after two more books there was a seventeen year gap until book four, A QUIET FLAME. Perhaps that gap is the reason the series remains so fresh, and Bernie's dialogue still drips with clever witticisms and cutting sarcasm.
The series has always mixed excitement with considerable educational value. It has seamlessly blended fiction with harsh historical fact. One of the successes of the novels is to make a fictional wise-cracking German detective, with a surprising sense of humour, seem just as believable as the bizarre psychopathic real life characters who inhabited the upper echelons of the Nazi Party, the SS, the SD, the Ustase (Croatian Fascists) and the Gestapo.
The story begins on the French Riviera in 1956 when Bernie, watching a movie starring the actress Dalia Dresner, remembers the events of 1942 and 1943, and their very special relationship. In 1942 Bernie is working lonely nights at the Police Praesidium on Alexanderplatz, a form of exile ordered by Reinhard Heydrich, Reich Protector of Bohemia Moravia, before he was assassinated in 1942.
Arthur Nebe acting President of ICPC (International Criminal Police Commission: after 1956 this organization was renamed Interpol) ropes in Bernie to address a crime conference at Wansee, a few weeks after the more notorious meeting there that decided the fate of Europe's Jews. The conference is to be attended by police representatives from France, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. The reluctant Bernie is to speak about his investigation and arrest of the strangler Gormann, and he sees the irony of discussing one murder, when so many are being committed all over Europe. The greater irony was that before becoming President of ICPC Arthur Nebe had commanded SS Operation Group B in Byelorussia (now Belarus) where his men had killed 45,000 Jews. Bernie is introduced to the Swiss delegation, having previously been asked by Berlin lawyer Dr Hecholz to investigate a connection between the sale of a client's house at Wansee to the SD, and certain Zurich-based Swiss companies. When Dr Hecholz is murdered Bernie naturally assumes it is yet another Nazi crime.
The narrative jumps forward a year to 1943, when Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Truth and Propaganda, is trying to persuade the beautiful actress Dalia Dresner, with whom he is infatuated to take a part in a movie, and sends Bernie to Yugoslavia looking for her father. Bernie despite having seen massacres in Russia is very shocked by the level of violence in Bosnia. When he returns to Berlin he is sent with further tasks to Switzerland, where intrigue, murders, luxury lakeside villas, and the beautiful Dalia await his attentions.
Then the reader is taken back to 1956 on the Riviera, and the conclusion of this story is as cynical as you would expect from a Bernie Gunther thriller.
This is a stylish novel with an easy to read narrative and dialogue that does not pull its punches. It is the content that some might find difficult in that it provides a warning from history of just how much hatred and evil mankind is capable. But I can highly recommend this novel for the educational content. Bernie's smart quips and insolent behaviour acts as some kind of antidote to the tales of horrific brutality that unfortunately are not the fictional part of the narrative.
Norman Price, England