– Post by Molly
Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther novel, The Lady From Zagreb, is released today, and I am pleased to report that The Lady From Zagreb is another stellar excursion into the noir nightmare of mid-20th century history. The Lady From Zagreb is Kerr’s tenth book in his Bernie Gunther series, and perhaps that’s why the novel brings together so many strands, styles and inspirations from Kerr’s previous work, as well as continuing to expand on Bernie Gunther’s wartime experiences as a way of exploring various fronts and the incredible variety of inhumanity characterizing the period before, during, and after the Second World War. Kerr’s last few Gunther novels have placed Bernie at the scene in a number of iconic WWII moments, including the Katyn Massacre, in A Man Without Breath, and Prague under Heydrich’s less-than-gentle administration, in Prague Fatale.
The Lady From Zagreb is no exception – the novel contains, among many other priceless moments, a conference on international crime held at the Wannsee Villa, site of the more infamous Wannsee Conference, where the Final Solution officially became Nazi policy. As per usual, Kerr treads a fine line between pointing out those ludicrous and somewhat humorous aspects of the Nazi regime, elegantly incorporating mystery genre conventions into an appropriate historicity, and plunging his audience into the daily horror that is the fascist reality.
Kerr’s setting and his style are the perfect fit once again, as Bernie Gunther takes a tour of the worst Ustaše (a Croatian puppet government of the Nazis) atrocities in wartime Croatia while on assignment from Goebbels to locate the missing father of a Slavic film star. Upon his return to Germany, Gunther must go off to Switzerland to convince the actress to star in an upcoming propaganda film. While Bernie’s time in bombed-out Berlin and carnage-strewn Croatia will please those fans of Kerr’s wartime novels, Gunther’s trip to Switzerland, Europe’s impossibly peaceful valley of the uncanny, acts as a worthy heir to the menacing atmosphere yet relatively low body-count of Kerr’s Berlin Noir Trilogy, or more recently, Prague Fatale, Kerr’s tribute to the locked-room mystery, which I can only describe as ridiculously amazing.
Kerr’s work draws much of its literary power from the basic irony of trying to solve a small crime in the midst of a large crime – a theme historical detective fiction returns to over and over, examples including, but not limited to, Robert Wilson’s A Small Death In Lisbon, Hans Helmutt Kirst’s Night of the Generals, or in Marek Krajewski’s The Minotaur’s Head. The small crime acts as a measurement for the larger one, contextualizing its magnitude, and increasing the novel’s resonance. Kerr’s Gunther series, as it has evolved, has continuously explored this contrast in a number of different environments, and at this point, Kerr has managed to bring to life, through small investigations by a clear-eyed yet sentimental protagonist, many of the worst moments of the twentieth century.
One of my favorite things about Philip Kerr’s novels is that they solve a basic plausibility problem of the detective genre: one of those nit-picky details that has always bothered me about detective novels set in peacetime, or in countries with incredibly low murder rates, is that the fictional murders tend to vastly outpace real-life statistics. Fortunately, when you set a detective novel in Nazi Germany, you can kill off as many characters as you would like, and the novel will remain plausible throughout. Although it would be near-impossible for The Lady From Zagreb to outpace the body count of previous novels, never fear – Kerr’s latest certainly keeps pace.
You can find copies of The Lady From Zagreb on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Keep a lookout later in the month for an interview with Philip Kerr.