This is a review also for Book beginnings on Friday
This is a book I picked up at the wonderful second hand bookshop in Palma. It turned out to be a 5 points/stars/coffee cups or whatever book. I must admit I have never heard of Philip Kerr before, but I will be eager to read more books by him. This is a very different crime fiction with a fascinating story against historical backdrops before and after the Second World War which takes place in Germany and Argentina.
The boat was the SS Giovanni, which seemed only appropriate given the fact that at least three of its passengers, including myself, had been in the SS. It was a medium-sized boat with two funnels, a view of the sea, a well-stocked bar, and an Italian restaurant. This was fine if you liked Italian food, but after four weeks at sea at eight knots all the way from Genoa, I didn’t like it and I wasn’t sad to get off. Either I’m not much of a sailor or there was something wrong with me beyond the company I was keeping these days.
This is how the book begins in Buenos Aires in 1950. Bernie Gunther was a crime investigator in Berlin before the war. He is fleeing Europe and arriving in Buenos Aires with another person’s identity and profession. The profession gives him an introduction to Juan and Evita Peron. Since he is not a doctor but a crime investigator he can’t do much for them but more for Colonel Montalban, head of a branch of the Secret Intelligence. It turns out that Montalban is well aware of who Gunther is and has admired him a long time as a very good crime investigator.
In Buenos Aires, a young girl has been found dead and mutilated in the same way that other girls were found in Berlin and Munich in 1932. Gunther was in charge of the case but was not able to solve it. The leads went too close to the top people and he was prevented from going on. Since the mutilation is very peculiar, Montalban suspects that it could be the same culprit as in Berlin many years ago. This could indicate that it might be someone from the German community fleeing to Argentina after the war. Montalban wants Gunther to look into the case.
This is just the beginning of this very exciting story, which takes unexpected turns at every corner. In the author’s note Kerr refers to Uki Goni’s book The Real Odessa as background information on what happened in Argentina at the time; of people disappearing, camps for immigrants, mostly Jews, Nazi money in Switzerland and much more. Kerr has woven his story into historical evens and you are fascinated from beginning to end. It is difficult to reveal more of the story without spoiling it. One thing leads to the next and the next and the next and maybe Gunther should have listened to Montalban when he told him: ‘In Buenos Aires it is better to know everything than it is to know too much.’
But with Gunther that advice does not work. He has to know. But while it made him loose his work in Berlin, doing so in Buenos Aires could make him loose his life. At one point he is taken in an airplane where the authorities get rid of uncomfortable people by throwing them off the plane from five thousand metres. Due to what he knows, but has not year revealed, he is saved at the last minute by Colonel Montalban. When he is let loose the following dialogue takes place:
‘What did you expect?’ said a voice behind me. ‘I warned you to leave it alone.’
My neck was painful from when I’d been slugged but, gritting my teeth, I turned my head into the pain to meet the Colonel’s eye.
‘I didn’t expect to find what I found,’ I said. ‘I didn’t expect the unthinkable. Not again. Not here. This is supposed to be a new world. I didn’t expect it would be just like the old one. But, you know? Now that I’ve seen your national airline and how it handles double-booked passengers, suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so surprising.’
‘This?’ He shrugged. ‘It’s easier this way. There’s no evidence. No camps. No bodies. No graves. Nothing. No one can ever prove anything. It’s a one-way ticket. No one comes back to tell the tale.’
‘Who were they, anyway? Those people who disappeared just now.’
‘People like you, Gunther. People who asked too many questions.’
‘Is that all you’ve got against me? I got a grin going and tried to make my mouth hang on to it, like I still had an ace up my sleeve.
This crime fiction seems very fresh and quite different from the any other: maybe because of the seriousness of the topic, maybe because the sleuth is a German and definitely because of the way it is written. As it says on the cover, quoting the Observer: ‘pure Chandler’. You definitely start thinking of The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. The style is the same as his books and the underlying dry humour, the down to earth comments and the way Kerr approaches his story is just very good. A must read as I see it!