Berlin Noir: March Violets; The Pale Criminal; A German Requiem – Philip Kerr

reviewed by Lillian Thurston

Did you ever wonder what it was like to live in Berlin during the reign of the Nazis? If you weren’t a Nazi, how did you survive? Berlin Noir, a trilogy by British author Phillip Kerr is a must-read for history buffs and anyone who loves a great, well-written story.

Part I — March Violets: Berlin, 1936. Storm-troopers patrol the streets. Plastered on walls throughout the city, “Der Sturmer”, an anti-Semitic Journal, promotes Jew-baiting and terror.

Because of increasing Nazi control, Bernie Gunther resigns as a Kriminalinspektor in Kripo, the Berlin Police Force, and becomes a private detective. Investigations for insurance companies are one source of income; but with the Nazi purge, Jews disappear every day and he’s sought by their relatives to find them. There are few they can turn to;  people are too afraid to help, but not Bernie; he’s not scared of the Nazis and Jews always pay him on time.

One of his clients, Herr Six, a wealthy steel millionaire, wants Bernie to find jewels worth seven hundred and fifty thousand Reichmarks, as well as the murderer of his daughter. However, nothing is as it seems and there are few he can trust. He falls into the power of the Nazis, winds up in Dachau and barely survives. It is only after Dachau, walking the streets of Berlin, that he realizes the strength of the grip of the Nazis.

Part II — The Pale Criminal: Berlin, 1938. And now there is war. He has a new case: tracking a killer–a serial killer– through the streets of Berlin, and just like before, nothing is as it seems and his freedom and life are in danger. To survive he must outwit some formidable foes: Heydrich, Himmler, Goering and Nebe; but it’s easier said than done.

Part III — The German Requiem: When war is over, things became worse—incredibly worse; the Nazis have gone, and now he must deal with the British, the Americans, and worst of all the “Ivans”–the Russians. His wife, Kirsten, works as a waitress at an American Bar and he must come to terms with her affair with an American Captain. However, it’s not that easy: the Captain provides them with desperately needed food.

Colonel Poroshin, a powerful Russian, offers him $5,000 to go to Vienna; he must clear an old army acquaintance of murder; but again, nothing is as it seems. Atrocities of the past pale in comparison with what he discovers; as the truth is revealed, he is in even more danger.

From the very first page I could not put this book down. It’s been a long time since I found a novel so compelling. Not only is author Philips Kerr’s research of the era so comprehensive, but he makes Bernie Gunther’s story come alive with heroic–if sometimes unwise–actions. His exploits keep you glued to each page. The dialogue is brilliant, reminiscent of Chandler; it moves with humor and speed.

Set in Germany’s darkest period, it stirs the memory for those like me—-old enough to remember. Others will find it just as staggering and disturbing.

Kerr has written subsequent thrillers featuring Bernie Gunther and if they’re as captivating as Berlin Noir, I can’t wait to get my hands on one!

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