Book Review – A Quiet Flame

A Quiet Flame

Philip Kerr

2008

I think something happened to Germany after the Great War. You could see it on the streets of Berlin. A callous indifference to human suffering. And, perhaps, after all the those demented, sometimes cannibalistic killers we had during the Weimar Years, we ought to have seen it coming: the murder squads and the death factories. Killers who were demented but also quite ordinary…Ordinary people who committed crimes of unparalleled savagery. Looking back at them now they seemed like a sign of that which was to follow…”

The fifth entry in Kerr’s series of novels involving German private eye Bernie Gunther, A Quiet Flame marks a new change of pace for the series – mixing two separate plot lines set across a time gap of nearly seventeen years.  Combining a routine 1933 murder investigation with a continuation of the contemporary story involving Gunther’s arrival in Argentina under the guise of a fleeing Nazi, the book stands out as the most unusual one in the series so far, whilst also providing some of the most memorable scenes of the series so far.

Picking up directly where its predecessor, the brilliant The One from the Other, ended, the novel starts with Bernie Gunther aboard a ship filled with Nazis fleeing the war-torn remains of Germany, hoping to start life afresh in South America, aided by a rather accommodating government. The year is 1950 and Gunther, travelling under the assumed name of Carlos Hausner (having been forced to abandon his own name during the events of the previous novel), and landing in Buenos Aires. As is customary, word of his arrival spreads around and he soon finds himself consulted by an Argentine detective, looking to use Gunther’s skills to help discover the identity of a child murderer who has been prowling the city streets, in a manner strongly similar to a spat of murders in Germany in 1933, crimes which Gunther himself was involved in investigating. To add to the mix, Gunther is revealed to have discovered the existence of throat cancer shortly upon his arrival to Argentine shores, and as a sweetener for his assistance with the investigation, Gunther is promised access to the same doctors treating none other than Argentina’s corrupt military president, Peron, and his wife, both of whom Gunther finds himself more deeply involved with that he would have liked.

Rather than telling a straight story, the book alternates between two different time periods – one involving Gunther’s work and investigation in 1950, and one detailing the events of Gunther’s original 1933 investigations. It’s an interesting move, and at times the backstory tends to overshadow the contemporary story – perhaps owing to the fact that the backstory places Gunther in surroundings familiar to both readers and, presumably, to Kerr himself.

The backstory details Gunther’s police investigations amongst the backdrop of the dying days of the Weimar Republic and the impending rise to power of the Nazi party. The backstory plot is very reminiscent of the second entry in the series, The Pale Criminal, which involved Gunther carrying out a very similar investigation under very equally similar circumstances. Gunther, one of the few men willing to speak out against the Nazis, finds himself betrayed, untrusted and obstructed as he tries to identify the murderer of young teenage prostitutes before the killer can strike again. Just as he looks set to catch up with his man, thanks to the work of a Jewish officer working on a similar case, the Nazis anti-Jewish crusades end the only way they can, and Gunther’s thread seems lost forever. Whilst this plot unfolds, as does his contemporary investigations into as Gunther works his way through the hundreds of former Nazis now living in anonymity and relative peace in Buenos Aires. The plots eventually entwine, and for the final third of the book, the story focuses solely on the contemporary story. Whilst Gunther finally identifies his man, he finds himself engaged in another job, this time trying to help find a Jewish refugee track down her missing relatives, ones who she hoped had managed to flee to Argentina during the war. Gunther’s investigations lead him to uncovering a wider political conspiracy involving the Argentine government’s complicity in the Nazis anti-Jewish activities. The book’s climax involves a memorable sequence of scenes involving Gunther and his companion discovering and exploring the remains of a hidden concentration camp, buried away in the Argentine countryside, guarded by a small army of former Nazi elite. Gunther manages to survive the ordeal (including nearly finding himself thrown out of an airplane as part of a torture exercise), but finds himself once again having to flee his new country for his own safety, hoping to find a new beginning in another country, one where he is, as always, alone.

As would be expected, the book ends on a downbeat note – the slight optimism that marked the endings of A German Requiem and The One from the Other is pretty much gone by now  – and you can’t help but feel rather depressed for Gunther as a character. Two dead wives, no lasting friendships, forced to abandon his identity before having to leave his native country only to then find himself forced to leave his new, adopted country…after five entries into the series, he really seems to have the worst luck in the world…

I stood up, slightly horrified at this outburst and the way I’d suddenly reduced him to the level of a schoolboy. It was odd. I felt only disgust for him. But what as odder still was the disgust I now felt for myself. At the darkness that dwelt within me. At the darkness that dwells within us all.”

The series is well known for its dark and violent nature, and the general bleakness surrounding the storylines and the investigations Gunther becomes involved in, and this is very much brought to the forefront in A Quiet Flame. Thematically, the story focuses on the idea that there is an inherent tendency towards violence and evil in everyone – and how easily it can arise in the right circumstances. From how ordinary people can be encouraged to support the likes of the SS and Adolf Hitler, to how a medical student can find reward in the pursuit of carrying out live human experiments in the name of science thanks to a regime which considers certain segment of society less than human, this is the ‘quite flame’ which the title relates to.

The book is well-written and continues with the series’ customary darkness and sinister undertones, whilst maintaining a distinctly hardboiled edge, with occasional drops of humour and witty remarks to lighten the mood. The change of setting from Germany/Austria to Argentina provides a refreshing change of pace (at least, for the parts of the story which deal with the contemporary storyline), and allows Kerr to take Gunther into new and unfamiliar territory, whilst dealing with an area of history which is often overlooked when the subject of World War 2 is concerned.

As customary, the book name-drops a number of real-life political figures, namely President Peron and his wife, as well as the infamous ‘Angel of Death’ Doctor Josef Mengele. If there is one criticism to be made of the Gunther series, it’s that sometimes the inclusion of some of the bigger characters of that time period (Goebbels and Goering in March Violets, Himmler in The Pale Criminal) feels like it is something that is done more for the ease of readers – something done to add a degree of familiarity with the subject matter, at the expense of a degree of believability in the story. In some respects, this continues here, where Gunther’s meeting with Peron and his wife so soon upon his arrival (and so early into the book), however the inclusion of Mengele (particularly his involvement with the backstory) is really well-done and adds an unexpected yet believable plot twist which would also fits in well with the character’s real-life background (Mengele did in fact escape to South America, where he survived until 1979 at the age of 67).

If there is one area of criticism, it’s that the fact of Gunther’s cancer is given only a small amount of attention throughout the book, before it is promptly treated (and seemingly cured) upon the completion of his investigation. It seems to be a point used solely to spurn Gunther into agreeing to take on the case, but has little substantive impact otherwise.  For such a (potentially) large plot point, it’s surprisingly downplayed in the book. Not that it is without some degree of precedent – the death of his wife in The One from the Other is also a rather sudden development, in spite of the relative significance of the character and the impact on Gunther himself. Nevertheless, it’s certainly not something which pulls down the rest of the story.

Entwining two timeframes is an interesting move, and Kerr tries to devote a balanced amount of time spent on the two, although it is fair to say at first the 1933 backstory seems to have taken more of his interest at first, in that it seems to be generally a more detailed and developed storyline, whereas Gunther’s contemporary investigations come together fairly quickly and the focus is instead more on the political backdrop surrounding the setting. But, once the two cases join up and the underlying case is cracked, the contemporary plot takes a dramatic shift forwards in both storyline and character development, as Gunther explores deeper into the presence of the Nazi elite and their plans within Argentina to continue their work, aided by a woman whose own family has suffered from these same crimes. By the end, both plots feel equally developed, albeit in a slightly disjointed way, and the climax to the book is as good as any which came before it.

Overall, whilst it perhaps doesn’t quite reach the highs of The One from the Other (by far my favourite in the series thus far), it’s still a strong entry in the series and one which attempts to break away from the standard pattern. The similarity of the backstory to that of The Pale Criminal does leave that section of the book occasionally feeling a bit like it is tracing over old ground at times, but the material remains strong enough that it remains engaging to read, and the gradual progression of the contemporary plot thread adds enough new material and settings to keep things fresh. The story remains dark yet engrossing, and the final chapters provide some of the most shocking and memorable scenes of the series thus far. Five entries into the series, Kerr’s series shows no sign of letting down.

Next up…If the Dead Rise Not.

 

 

 

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