Setting: The action moves from Berlin (1934) To Havana, Cuba (1954).
Story: Bernie Gunther, former Berlin policeman, works as a hotel detective. His city is getting ready for the Olympics with construction everywhere and opportunities for corruption aplenty. Into the picture comes an American female journalist who cannot understand why Berlin’s anti-semitism was missed by Avery Brundage and the Olympic Committee. (Brundage had, shall we say, a controversial relationship with anti-semitism. He was heavily involved in the 1936 and 1972 Olympic Games.) This journalist is out to expose the true situation.
Meantime, Max Seles, a guest in the hotel, comes to Bernie’s attention in more than way. It all ends in a bloody mess before we move on to Havana. It’s the start for more investigative work by Bernie, blasts from the past, and more trouble.
Good Stuff: The Berlin part makes the reader feel like he is witnessing history. It is superb. Not a pretty scene, but expertly observed, and finely told. The Havana part is not as rich, but not bad. It does feature some great real life criminal characters, and catches the pre Castro Cuba in a sympathetic snapshot. The plotting is solid.
Kerr’s writing is just wonderful. The book moves along with grace and humor. The Gunther character remains one of my favorites, even as he ages and begins to feel the toll on his weary body.
‘The war, I mean. The Nazis and Hitler. What do you think about it?’
‘I try not to think about it at all,’ I said. ‘But when I do, I think this: that for a short period of time the German language was a series of large German words, formed from very small German thinking.’
Not So Good Stuff: Not much. The book did have one or two flat moments, but these were minor. And once or twice the Chandleresque stuff was over the limit. (But, 99% of the time it was brilliant.)
Note: I recommend the whole Bernie Gunther series. For maximum effect, read them in order. But above all, read them. Kerr is a top author who writes books that linger in your memory long after you have read them. He deserves your attention.