Review: If The Dead Rise Not – Philip Kerr

My version: Hardback
Genre: Fiction, Thriller
 Quercus Publishing
First published: 2009
ISBN: 978-1-84724-942-5
Pages: 455

From the cover:
“As Berlin prepares for the 1936 Olympic Games, Bernie is caught between violently opposing factions in a story that comes full circle in 1950s’ Cuba.
Berlin 1934. The Nazis have been in power for just eighteen months but already Germany has seen some frightening changes. As the city prepares to host the 1936 Olympics, Jews are being expelled from all German sporting organisations – a blatant example of discrimination.
Forced to resign as a homicide detective with Berlin’s Criminal Police, Bernie is now house detective at the famous Adlon Hotel. Two bodies are found – one a businessman and the other a Jewish boxer. As Bernie digs to unearth the truth, he discovers a vast labour and construction racket designed to take advantage of the huge sums the Nazis are spending to showcase the new Germany to the world. It is a plot that finds its dramatic and violent conclusion twenty years later in pre-revolutionary Cuba.”

This is the first Philip Kerr book I have read. I am, for some unfathomable reason, interested in the period in Europe and Germany in particular, between the First and Second World wars. That was why I was moving towards reading some of his books even before this one presented itself to me as Danish book bargain of the year.

I enjoyed ‘If The Dead Rise Not’, not least because it felt like it was adding some nuances of colour to a previously black and white dominated memory world. I feel like, that because there wasn’t – so much – colour film around in those days, when we now read about those days, during and just before WWII, our imagination is in black and white. What I’m clumsily trying to say, is that now, writers like Philip Kerr are bringing subtle colours into the previously faded, sepia-toned black and white photo memories.

The story centers around a German ex-Police Detective called Bernie Gunther. The book begins in 1934 and if you know your German history, it is only a year or so since the Nazis came to power. If you really know your German history, you will know that the Third Reich removed the Weimar Republic and after the Nazis came to power, Germany became an extremely unpleasant place to be for Jews, Communists and everyone else the Nazis didn’t like, which included previous supporters of the Weimar Republic. Like Bernie Gunther. As the book starts, Gunther is working as a private detective of sorts at a big hotel in Berlin. He becomes involved in investigating a couple of murders, which lead him to uncover, or at least suspect, a plot to siphon money from the building of the Olympic Games facilities for 1936. He gets involved with two of the hotel’s guests and their paths cross many times, for good and bad and again much later, 20-odd years later, when he has ended up in Cuba, in the years before the revolution there.

As a description of the character of Bernie Gunther, I can’t do better than the Daily Telegraph‘s

“In Bernie Gunther, Kerr has created a plum example of that irresistible folk hero, the detective who is the only honorable man in a wicked world”

Interestingly enough, it just so happened that I was reading The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans at the same time as reading this. The first part deals with the events leading up to the Nazis coming to power. So I can confirm, as much as I’m sure confirmation was needed, that all facts are present and correct. Philip Kerr uses the situation in Germany, to show how ordinary people reacted to the extraordinary situations they now found themselves in. In some it brings out the good, in others it of course created the perfect place for the free reign of the bad. Whilst some of his characters are, at least in part, Jewish, this isn’t a story about the Jewish situation. Probably as this is a subject best covered elsewhere. Obviously the anti-Jewish aspect of the Nazi’s regime even in their early days, is touched upon (as it is unavoidable in a story set in Europe in this period), though it isn’t the main motivation for his characters’ actions. I got a feeling reading this and The Coming of the Third Reich, that the situation regarding German Jewish people, was such a part of (other) ordinary people’s everyday, that despite their protestations after the war that they knew nothing about the Jewish situation, the ordinary people must have. They did. The knowledge was unavoidable and you had to actually decide ‘not to notice.’ However, the characters here are by and large reasonably ordinary people, dealing with an extraordinary situation and doing what a lot of people must have done while their masters were playing politics with their lives; just getting on with it. If there absolutely has to be a ‘but’ within my enjoyment of this book, and I fear there absolutely has to be, it is the almost constant wisecracking. Both in what Bernie Gunther says and thinks. I sometimes thought it was a little too much. I’m not saying, that there wouldn’t have been a lot of black humour at the time, as Germans in general and perhaps especially the Berlin urban sophisticates Philip Kerr writes about, came to terms with what they’d let themselves in for, by either voting for, or not resisting enough. As Kerr writes: “Quite a few of them (Nazis) … Seemed to have a flair for persuading Germans to go against their own common sense.” On the positive side, I got a sense that his characters joked about life to alleviate their current situation, with perhaps the underlying hope that ‘it can’t go on like this, it can’t last’ and I’m sure that was a real feeling. Black humour would be understandable and perhaps necessary to retain your sanity and I’m guessing that because everything else has been so obviously well-researched, he has also researched and found that this amount of wise-cracking, from big-city Germans throughout Berlin, is authentic. However, sometimes it feelt too much. Sometimes it feels more like Philip Kerr has written it in because he, Philip Kerr, liked writing it, more than ‘Bernie Gunther’ would have either had the character to say it, or have found it necessary, or that its inclusion helps the plot development. It is enjoyable to read and I’m not saying it wouldn’t have been the case, or that all Germans did, or do, fit their stereotype as humourless automatons. I found it a little distracting on occasions.

I was also not entirely sure why the story ended to move some 20 years into the future to 1954. Obviously, by mentioning what has happened to the main characters – who somewhat fortuitously have all found themselves on Cuba at exactly the same time – in half dozen lines at a time flashbacks, does save a lot of time (ours’ and the author’s) and space, but why, wasn’t entirely clear to me. Maybe because two of the people involved in the German part of the story are American. Or maybe I missed something.

On the whole positive, with a few negatives. So I’m giving it a rating a little over half way and enough to make me trying others by Philip Kerr.

As a final thought, I wouldn’t have thought it a bad idea, to have added a bibliography at the end. I’m sure his research material would make equally interesting reading. For people like me anyway.

You can buy If The Dead Rise Not from The Book Depository

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