If the Dead Rise Not (A Bernie Gunther Novel)
Talk about being in the wrong place in the wrong time. In the sixth and latest Bernie Gunther novel, Philip Kerr’s much loved, much abused private investigator finds himself in the build up to two wars. Starting in Berlin, in 1934, and ending in 1954 Havana, he attempts to play white knight twice to the same beautiful woman, landing himself deeper in trouble each time.
Making up one extended story, these two settings bookend the previous Gunther novels. Starting two years before 1989’s March Violets, the young Gunther we start off with is not yet the hardened PI of those first Berlin Trilogy novels. He’s a former cop, a Social Democrat trying to find a place as the Nazis take over his country, working as a hotel detective when his boss introduces him to an American journalist.
That journalist, one Noreen Charalambides, has an agenda: by exposing the state-sponsored antiSemitism of the new regime, she hopes to nudge the U.S. into a boycott of the upcoming Berlin Olympics. She hires the broke, bored Gunther to show her Berlin’s dirty secrets.
Gunther, who has recently lost a Jewish lover, has additional motive: she’s gorgeous. Or, in Kerr’s over-the-top Chandler-inspired words, “Just the idea of being in a car with her put me in mind of a novice father confessor in a convent population with nuns who were ex-chorus girls.”
Driven by desire for his new employer, as well as a growing conscience, Gunther brings Noreen into an investigation that his former colleagues would rather ignore: uncovering the truth behind the suspicious death of a Jewish former boxer. By the end of his investigation, they both know whodunit, they are separated, and Gunther is stuck working for the Nazis he detests.
The second half of this hefty book picks up 20 years later, two years after the most recent Gunther novel, 2006’s A Quiet Place.
As this section opens, Gunther is trying to live a quiet life under an assumed name in Havana. He longs to return to Germany where, due to the events of the intervening novels, he’s a wanted man. But he briefly puts aside plans to return when he runs into Noreen again.
She’s still a writer, but this time her only cause is the salvation of her daughter, a beautiful bad girl who has taken up with the American gangsters running rampant under the Batista regime. Castro is in prison, but the revolution is simmering—and when an old enemy from Berlin shows up, Gunther is drawn into what he already suspects will be the losing side.
As the many fans of these novels will already know, Gunther is an appealing protagonist. The classic hard-boiled hero, a tough guy with a heart of gold, he cannot avoid charging at windmills, especially if the windmill has sex appeal. If his first person narrative approaches shtick at times—and the descriptions of babes and cars certainly does—the elaborate, well-researched settings and intricate plot turns keep our interest.
In fact, Kerr’s re-created worlds are so believable that the one major jolt in the book comes when one story ends and the other begins. While this split-time device allows Kerr to extend his hero’s storyline—creating a love interest that connects his protagonist’s Old and New World lives—it’s jarring. Plus, despite his usual fervid prose, it takes a while for that second, Cuba-based narrative to gather steam. When it, too, resolves (at least temporarily) it does so a bit quickly, with an after-the-fact revelation that lacks the lived-in quality of the previous narrative. It’s a minor flaw, a slight lessening of intensity that’s only noticeable because the rest of the book has been going full bore. After more than 400 pages, we may need the breather, since Kerr clearly has big plans still in store for Bernie Gunther.