It’s the end of the month, and so it’s time for my review of September’s book club pick, March Violets by Philip Kerr.
March Violets is a very good novel in a series featuring private detective Bernie Guenther. Bernie is a former Berlin police detective, but after several cases turned up corruption in the department, he left the force to open his own agency. Now, he is asked to investigate a missing necklace that is embroiled in corruption, betrayal, murder, skeletons in the closet and the Gestapo. Did I mention Nazis? Bernie usually stays out of cases that might involve the secret police or step on the toes of the Berlin criminal police, the kripo, but in this instance he is in the thick of it from the get go. He investigates the missing necklace and soon discovers one secret after another. He is a better detective than his client expected, and with each discovery, Bernie is deeper into the corruption that is rampant in Nazi Germany, to the point where he is a pawn in the power struggle between Goering and Himmler themselves. Goering is actually a major player in the turn of events that leads to the answers Bernie seeks.
This novel is not for the faint of heart. Kerr takes the cliche gumshoe and puts him deep in the heart of Nazi Germany in 1936, adding to the usual dangers that befits the private eye. Not only does Bernie deal with shady clients, corrupt police, and the Mob, but also Nazis. To update the travails of the classic noir detective, Kerr increases the level of violence and desperation. When I was researching this novel, I read a blog that compared it to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which, of course, I can’t find now), and I would agree in the sense that the level of violence is very similar. The shocking rape and torture scenes of GWTDT would fit in quite well in March Violets - there are a couple of scenes that are quite similar. To ensure that you don’t forget that you are reading about Nazis, Bernie is sent to Dachau, and he witnesses first hand the atrocities against the prisoners.
The novel is a gripping story from start to finish. Kerr adheres to the tradition of noir fiction, specifically the self-defeating protagonist; on several occasions, Bernie gets himself into further trouble simply because his pride is wounded and he feels compelled to respond in kind. As well, Bernie is a romantic possibility with each eligible female character, another noir staple. The mystery at the heart of the story is a straightforward tale of half-truths and secrets, and no character is as they seem at the outset. However, where Kerr shines is in replicating the anxiety, tension and fear of Berlin under those conditions. It’s not quite wartime yet, but it’s not exactly peacetime for the citizens of Germany in 1936. "March violets" is a term referring to this atmosphere, describing those members of the Nazi party who signed up in March 1933, just months before new membership was suspended. If you were not a member of the party by that point, your future in Germany was limited and potentially dangerous.
I would recommend it for mystery fans, certainly fans of Stieg Larsson or other dark mystery writers such as Michael Connelly or Ian Rankin. It may also appeal to historical fiction fans, especially fans of World War II novels. However, it is quite graphic in some scenes, so heads up. Three missing necklaces out of five.
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