Summer 1942. When Bernie Gunther is ordered to speak at an international police conference, and old aquaintance has a favour to ask. Little does Bernie suspect what this simple surveillance task will provoke…
One year later, resurfacing from the hell of the Eastern front, Bernie receives another task that seems straightforward: locating the father of Dalia Dresner, the rising star of German cinema. And if escaping Berlin for a beautiful woman isn’t motivation enough, there’s the small matter of the requests origin: Goebbels himself.
But Dresner’s father hails from Yugoslavia, a country so riven by sectarian horrors that even Bernie’s stomach is turned, and meanwhile the previous year’s cold case lingers on, and there’s only so long Bernie can stay away.
Bernie hasn’t mellowed one iota, and his mordant wit and cynical observations are as sharp as ever. But even with monsters at home and abroad, one thing alone drives him on from Berlin to Zagreb to Zurich: Bernie Gunther has fallen in love.
Bernie Guinther falls in love for the second book running, if I’m not mistaken. That probably is a mistake – for now – but you do feel for him, he’s not getting any younger and needs to settle down. Though that would also be a mistake, for us the readers anyway.
But I digress. This book, is still about Nazi Germany in Eastern Europe during the Second World War, Philip Kerr again uses Bernie to look at what was happening in the fre-for-all they’d unleashed down in Croatia, Serbia and all those other places that would later become Yugoslavia, before imploding/exploding again. Yugoslavia, then and later, but mainly then, is pronably where the American feeling – as shown in all their thrillers that have at least a part of the plot set in or deriving from the feeling that ‘anything goes over there’ in Europe. It’s the place where revenge was invented and grievances are never ever forgotten. The Nazis provided for the breakdown in morality that allowed anyone to take up a gun and go looking for someone who might have offended them. What we’re seeing here, is the idea that compared to the animals down there in WWII, the Nazis atrocities, weren’t. What I thought Philip Kerr is saying, at least in part, is – how on earth can that be the case?! It’s just two sides of the same coiun – Nazis did it as a state, the Yugoslavs are more personal. They really don’t mind who they hate. Life clearly has a different meaning for them, down there. Which is why, even if he has to go back to a Berlin getting the shit bombed out of it at any time of day and night, and to face Goebbels with bad news…Bernie is relieved to get back.
Over the last few books, as the war begins tro go against the Germans, there has been more world-wearienss (if that was possible) and realism creeping into the sparkling wit from Bernie Gunther. Not that he’s hoping for a German victory, or that really should be a Nazi victory, he doesn’t want that. He wants the German people to win over the Nazis, by losing the war as quickly as possible and therefore limiting the damage done at home and (mainly to the Jews) abroad. In the last book, the idea of defeating Hitler through a plot and/or uprising was looked at, here Bernie’s realism seems to have pushed that idea aside somewhat. Mainly, because he’s in love? Love conquers all, I guess.
The Lady From Zagreb is written with the usual style and confidence from Philip Kerr. I don’t know what his background is, but there’s a feeling of controlled fury coming in to his writing here. Something that he needs to write Bernie into a bitter-sweet love story to assuage. There are twists and turns and beautiful, subtle and rewarding writing. Philip Kerr is unquestionably a writer at the absolute peak of his game and I hope he goes on writing books of this quality about Bernie Gunther for a long, long time yet. You should too.
Related reviews on Speesh Reads: