When reading a private detective novel set in the 1930s, there are a number of things that, as any fan of the genre will tell you, you can expect to see. A heavy-drinking, wise-cracking, world-weary private detective. A sexy yet deadly femme fatale. A sense of overwhelming cynicism, a feeling that the world and an awful lot in it is corrupt beyond repair. Missing people, dead bodies, over-zealous cops, gangsters… Philip Kerr’s debut novel has all of these. But it has one thing which most other classic detective novels do not – and that is an absolutely distinct setting which throws all of the expectations we otherwise have out of the window.
March Violets is a detective novel much in the vein of classics established by Chandler and Hammett. The detective, Bernie Gunther, fits well within the cast of detectives that collectively form the archetypal noir private eye. None of that is a criticism. The voice and character of Gunther is clear and unique. A former cop-turned-detective may not sound a revolutionary concept, but Kerr adds a certain x factor element to the character which sets him apart from all the eyes that came before him.
And that x factor is Nazi Germany. Looking back on it in retrospect, it is absolutely a perfect setting for a detective novel. An abhorrently evil regime filled with corruption, greed and a penchant for absolute power. A Country where entire ethnic groups were stigmatised, persecuted and forced into exile or left to face the inevitable fate of being sentenced to death in a concentration camp. Where people lived in fear and tried to ignore the sinister events surrounding them by, for all practical purposes, taking part in those very events themselves.
For all the horrors that world brings, it lends itself well to a noir novel. The sense of despair and a creeping sense of dread as Germany marches ever closer towards the world-shattering events of 1939 and beyond. Missing persons, murders, thefts, all of it means business is open for the world of private detectives.
It starts out much as you would expect. Gunther, after attending the wedding for a man he didn’t particularly care for, is called to the side of an aging client trying to locate rare jewels stolen from his daughter’s safe the night she and her husband were killed. Before long, Gunther is dealing with underground criminal groups, luscious film starlets, and even finds himself paid a visit by Herman Goering. Tensions between different Nazi factions and their influence on the world around them is a central theme of the story, while Kerr acts as a spectator to the world around him. The book culminates with a remarkable sequence with Gunther having to play the role of a prisoner within a concentration camp in the hope that an inmate can furnish him with the information he needs to save himself and wrap up his case. It is here that the book takes flight and confirms Kerr as a writer of true power.
There is perhaps a certain degree of retrospective thought used throughout the book. The characters are clearly aware that war is coming, and there is a distinct air of desperation in the story that feels it would be better suited to a mid or post-war setting, when the true horrors of the regime were becoming clear. It is the first book in the series (a series which does indeed cover the time frames suggested here), so I remain hopeful for the rest of it.
As an introduction however, March Violets is an impressive read and although stylistically it doesn’t vary much from what a fan of the genre may expect, the setting and story provides a thoroughly unique take on noir. Importantly, it also shows that noir fiction is just as thrilling as it was when it first started turning up in the pages of the pulps. Best yet, the book can be found within the collection entitled Berlin Noir which brings together the first three books in Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series. For any fan of the genre who is interested in history, World War Two, or just wants to read a more contemporary take on this kind of fiction, March Violets delivers in spades.