Nazi Noir Ventures To Havana In 'Dead Rise Not'

If The Dead Rise Not
If the Dead Rise Not
By Philip Kerr
Hardcover, 448
Putnam Adult
List price: $26.95
Read an Excerpt

Maybe it's different with you, but when I go on vacation, I always schlep all the high-class books I've fantasized about getting to — you know, that award-winning doorstop about Stalinism — and then wind up reading some thriller I grabbed at the airport. This silly method led to real discovery just once, back in the early '90s. On my way to the beach, I picked up Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir, a trilogy about a private detective, Bernie Gunther, during the Nazi years. I spent days glued to my deck chair.

Kerr went on to write other novels on other themes, but none felt nearly as inspired. Maybe he thought so himself, because four years ago, he brought back Bernie Gunther in The One from the Other, a story set near Dachau during the American occupation of Germany. Since then, he's gone on to write two more thrillers that carry Bernie's saga to the New World. The new one, If the Dead Rise Not, is a terrific story that flips from 1934 Berlin to 1954 Havana.

As the action begins, Bernie is working as the house detective at the Hotel Adlon, a real-life Berlin institution that was the "Grand Hotel" in that Greta Garbo movie. It should be an easy gig, but things turn tricky when Bernie is confronted with two dead bodies — one a businessman, the other a Jewish boxer. Before he knows it, he's caught up in a byzantine plot linking American gangsters, corrupt Nazis and Hitler's plans for the 1936 Olympics.

Being a private eye and not, say, a critic, Bernie inevitably gets involved with a woman too beautiful and classy for him. Here it's hard-drinking Noreen Charalambides, who is clearly a riff on Nora Charles from The Thin Man — she even has an alcoholic husband named Nick. Noreen's a Jewish-American journalist in Berlin to expose Nazi anti-Semitism. She and Bernie quickly wind up in bed, although Noreen never quite adjusts to the fact that, like every upstanding member of the private detectives union, he makes wisecracks about everything. "I'm worried that if I don't make jokes," Bernie tells her, "then someone will mistake me for a Nazi."

Part of the allure of these novels is that Bernie is such an interesting creation, a Chandleresque knight errant caught in insane historical surroundings. Bernie walks down streets so mean that nobody can stay alive and remain truly clean. He's constantly forced to work for people he detests, from Gestapo boss Reinhard Heydrich to CIA men busy whitewashing the records of anti-communist war criminals. Bernie carries the guilt of having to do terrible things.

Of course, with its trademark blend of madness and murder, the Nazi era makes a compelling backdrop for any thriller, but Kerr doesn't belabor the obvious. He gives you the texture of Hitler's Berlin and takes you inside events that are often forgotten. If the Dead Rise Not reminds us that the U.S. team only attended the Berlin Olympics because U.S. Olympic Committee Chairman Avery Brundage visited Germany and claimed to find no discrimination against Jews. Which is like going to the American South in the '30s and finding no discrimination against blacks — except that the U.S. government wasn't planning a genocide.

An Interview With Philip Kerr:

If book buyers never seem to get tired of the Hitler era, Kerr is clearly eager to venture into new historical territory. His previous novel found Bernie riding with Adolf Eichmann on the boat to Buenos Aires and meeting with Juan Peron. This new one carries his Latin American adventure even further when Bernie turns up in Batista's Cuba, which is both a mob-run playground for pleasure-seeking Yanquis and a dictatorship that, while mild next to Hitler's, is plenty bad. The murders that took place in 1934 Berlin have their ultimate payoff in Havana 20 years later.

What happened in Nazi Germany didn't end with Hitler's fall. It sent shock waves through the next decades, and what's great about this series is the way that Kerr has expanded his vision beyond the conventional crime novel. Bernie isn't one of those detectives who gets to solve crimes and put things right. Instead, he just tries to behave decently in a world where the serial killers run governments and history itself may be the biggest crime of all.

John Powers is film critic for Vogue and vogue.com

Excerpt: 'If The Dead Rise Not'

If The Dead Rise Not
If The Dead Rise Not
By Philip Kerr
Hardcover, 448
Putnam Adult
List price: $26.95

Berlin, 1934

It was the sort of sound you hear in the distance and mistake for something else: a dirty steam barge puffing along the River Spree; the shunting of a slow locomotive underneath the great glass roof of the Anhalter Station; the hot, impatient breath of some enormous dragon, as if one of the stone dinosaurs in Berlin's zoo had come to life and was now lumbering up Wilhelmstrasse. It hardly seemed like something musical until you guessed it was a military brass band, but even then it was too mechanical to resemble man-made music. Suddenly the air was filled with the clash of cymbals and the tinkling of frame glockenspiels, and at last I saw it — a detachment of soldiers marching as if intent on making work for the road menders. Just looking at these men made my feet hurt. They came clock-stepping along the street, their Mauser carbines shouldered on the left, their muscular right arms swinging with a pendulum-like exactitude between elbow and eagle-embossed belt buckle, their gray steel-helmeted heads held high and their thoughts, assuming they had any, occupied with nonsense about one folk, one leader, one empire — with Germany!

People stopped to stare and to salute the traffic jam of Nazi flags and banners the soldiers were carrying — an entire haberdasher's store of red and black and white curtain material. Others came running, full of patriotic enthusiasm to do the same. Children were hoisted onto broad shoulders or slipped through a policeman's legs so as not to miss anything.

Only the man standing next to me seemed less than enthusiastic.

"You mark my words," he said. "That crazy idiot Hitler means to have another war with England and France. As if we didn't lose enough men the last time. All this marching up and down makes me sick. It might have been God who invented the devil, but it was Austria that gave us the Leader."

The man uttering these words had a face like the Golem of Prague and a barrel-shaped body that belonged on a beer cart. He wore a short leather coat and a cap with a peak that grew straight out of his forehead. He had ears like an Indian elephant, a mustache like a toilet brush, and more chins than the Shanghai telephone directory. Even before he flicked the end of his cigarette at the brass band and hit the bass drum, a gap had opened around this ill-advised commentator, as if he were carrying a deadly disease. And no one wanted to be around when the Gestapo showed up with its own idea of a cure.

I turned away and walked quickly down Hedemann Strasse. It was a warm day, almost the end of September, when a word like "summer" made me think of something precious that was soon to be forgotten. Like freedom and justice. "Germany awake" was the slogan on everyone's lips, only it appeared to me that we were clock-stepping in our sleep toward some terrible but as yet unknown disaster. This didn't mean I was ever going to be foolish enough to say so in public, and certainly not when strangers were listening. I had principles, sure, but I also had all my own teeth.

"Hey you," said a voice behind me. "Stop a minute. I want to talk to you."

I kept on walking, and it was not until Saarland Strasse — formerly Koniggratzer Strasse, until the Nazis decided we all needed to be reminded about the Treaty of Versailles and the injustice of the League of Nations — that the owner of the voice caught up with me.

"Didn't you hear me?" he said. Taking hold of my shoulder, he pushed me up against an advertising column and showed me a bronze warrant disc on the palm of his hand. From this it was hard to tell if he was local or state criminal police, but from what I knew about Hermann Goering's new Prussian police, only the lower ranks carried bronze beer tokens. No one else was on the pavement, and the advertising column shielded us from the view of anyone on the road. Not that there was much real advertising pasted on it. These days, advertising was just a sign telling a Jew to keep off the grass.

"No, I didn't," I said.

"The man who spoke treasonably about the Leader. You must have heard what he said. You were standing right next to him."

"I don't remember hearing anything treasonable about the Leader," I said. "I was listening to the band."

"So why did you suddenly walk away?"

"I remembered that I had an appointment."

The cop's cheeks flushed a little. It wasn't a pleasant face. He had dark, shadowy eyes; a rigid, sneering mouth; and a rather salient jaw. It was a face that had nothing to fear from death since it already looked like a skull. If Goebbels had a taller, more rabidly Nazi brother, then this man might have been him.

"I don't believe you," the cop said, and, snapping his fingers impatiently, added, "Identification card, please."

The "please" was nice, but I still hardly wanted to let him see my identification. Section eight of page two detailed my profession by training and in fact. And since I was no longer a policeman but a hotel employee, it was as good as telling him I wasn't a Nazi. Worse than that. A man who had been obliged to leave the Berlin detective force because of his allegiance to the old Weimar Republic might be just the type to ignore someone speaking treason about the Leader. If treason was what that was. But I knew the cop would probably arrest me just to spoil my day, and arrest would very likely mean two weeks in a concentration camp.

He snapped his fingers again and glanced away, almost bored. "Come on, come on, I haven't got all day."

For a moment, I just bit my lip, irritated at being pushed around yet again, not just by this cadaver-faced cop but by the whole Nazi state. I'd been forced out of my job as a senior detective with KRIPO — a job I had loved — and been made to feel like a pariah because of my adherence to the old Weimar Republic. The Republic's faults had been many, it was true, but at least it had been democratic. And since its collapse, Berlin, the city of my birth, was hardly recognizable. Previously it had been the most liberal place in the world. Now it felt like a military parade ground. Dictatorships always look good until someone starts giving you dictation.

"Are you deaf! Let's see that damned card!" The cop snapped his fingers again.

My irritation turned to anger. I reached inside my jacket for the card with my left hand, turning my body just far enough around to disguise my right hand becoming a fist. And when I buried it in his gut, my whole body was behind it.

I hit him too hard. Much too hard. The blow took all the air out of him and then some. You hit a man in the gut like that, he stays hit for a good long while. I held the cop's unconscious body against me for a moment and then waltzed him through the revolving door of the Kaiser Hotel. My anger was already turning to something resembling panic.

"I think this man has suffered some kind of a seizure," I told the frowning doorman, and dumped the cop's body into a leather armchair. "Where are the house phones? I'll call an ambulance."

The doorman pointed around the corner of the front desk. I loosened the cop's tie for effect and behaved as if I were headed for the telephones. But as soon as I was around the corner, I walked through a service door and down some stairs before exiting the hotel through the kitchens. Emerging into an alley that gave onto Saarland Strasse, I walked quickly into Anhalter Station. For a moment I considered boarding a train. Then I saw the subway tunnel connecting the station with the Excelsior, which was Berlin's second-best hotel. No one would ever think to look for me in there. Not so close to an obvious means of escape. Besides, there was an excellent bar in the Excelsior. There's nothing like knocking out a policeman to give you a thirst.

Excerpted from If The Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr. Copyright 2010 by Philip Kerr. Excerpted by permission of Putnam Books.

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