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November 24, 2011 / C.T. Henry

REVIEW: If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr

Nominated for the Shamus Award in 2011, If the Dead Rise Not is one of the best hard-boiled detective stories I’ve read in a long time.  When you finish it, you feel like you’ve just read a classic.  Everything, from the way Bernie Gunther speaks, to the characterization of the classy dame and gangster in the story, tells you that this is one hell of a tale.
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‘Do you ever think of yourself as Aryan?’ Mrs. Charalambides asked me. ‘As more German than the Jews?’…
I shrugged and said, ‘A German is a man who can feel enormously proud of being a German while wearing a pair of tight leather shorts. In other words, the whole idea is ridiculous. Does that answer your question?’
She smiled. ‘Hedda said you had to leave the police because you were a well-known Social Democrat.’
‘I don’t know about well known. If I had been well known, things would be different for me now, I guess. These days you recognize a man who was a prominent Social Democrat by the arrows on his pajamas.’
‘Do you miss being a policeman?’
I shook my head.
‘But you were a policeman for more than ten years. Did you always want to be a policemen?’
‘Maybe. I don’t know. When I was a little boy I used to play cops and robbers on the green outside our apartment building and I wasn’t sure which I enjoyed being most: a cop or a robber. Anyway, I told my father that when I grew up I was probably going to be a cop or a robber, and he said, ‘Why not be like most cops and do both?’ I grinned. ‘He was a respectable man but he didn’t much like the police. No one did. I wouldn’t say we lived in a tough neighborhood but when I was growing up we still called a story with a happy ending an alibi.’
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If the Dead Rise Not starts in 1934 Berlin, where Bernie is employed as a hotel detective and coming to grips with the Nazi tide that’s swept across Germany.  A Weimar Republican at heart, Gunther misses the old days.  Hitler’s Berlin is presently preparing for the 1936 Olympics, and Bernie investigates two deaths that might be connected to the enormous sporting event. Hired by a beautiful American journalist, whose agenda is to force the U.S. boycott the Olympics due to the treatment of Jews, Bernie and Noreen look into the death of a Jewish boxer. In his job as house detective of the prestigious Hotel Adlon, the sudden death of a businessman, who was bidding for an Olympic contract, also comes to Bernie’s attention.  Philip Kerr’s depictions of Nazi Germany before the Olympics and Cuba in the 50s are lush and vivid, effortlessly transporting readers to these places in history.
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Bernie Gunther is a hard guy not to like, especially with that wicked tongue of his:

‘Do you have to make a joke about everything, Herr Gunther?’
I threw away the cigarette. ‘Only things that really aren’t very funny, Mrs. Charalambides. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much everything these days. You see, I’m worried that if I don’t make jokes, then someone will mistake me for a Nazi. I mean, have you ever heard Hitler tell a joke? No, neither have I. Maybe I’d like him better if he did.’
She continued staring at the washing machine. It seemed she wasn’t ready to smile yet. She said, ‘You provoked him.’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t like fighting, Herr Gunther. I’m a pacifist.’
‘This is Germany, Mrs. Charalambides. Fighting is our favourite means of diplomacy, everyone knows that. But as it happens, I’m a pacifist, too. As a matter of fact, I was trying to turn the other cheek to that fellow, just like it says in the Bible, and, well, you saw what happened. I managed it twice before he actually managed to put a hand on me. After that I had no choice. According to the Bible, anyway. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. That’s anothering thing it says. So I did.  I rendered him. Unconscious. Hell, no one likes violence less than me.’
She tried to keep her mouth steady but it wasn’t working now.
‘Besides,’ I added, ‘you can’t tell me that you didn’t want to hit him yourself.’
She laughed. ‘Well, all right, I did. He was a bastard and I’m glad you hit him. All right? But isn’t it dangerous? I mean, you could get into trouble. I wouldn’t want to get you into any trouble.’
‘I certainly don’t need your help for that, Mrs. Charalambides. I can manage it quite well on my own.’
His quick witted lines are often hilarious, but his problem with authority always seems to get him into trouble. Nevertheless, the sarcasm is so potent that you can’t help but laugh hysterically at Gunther’s jokes.  Page after page, Bernie’s wicked sense of humor, in such dark times, makes for an enjoyable reading experience.
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Gunther’s charm and ability to deceive provide some comic relief during a scary and stolid time in history.  In one scene, the author takes us to Grunewald Forest, where Nazi youths are harassing a group of homeless Jews.  With a bit of slight of hand, Bernie brilliantly beguiles them into thinking that he’s a cop and that the homeless Jews are actually Gestapo agents in disguise. He says, “That’s one thing I’ve learned in the last few years…To lie like you mean it.  As long as you can convince yourself of something first, no matter how outrageous, there’s no telling what you can get away with these days.”

The novel is a well-crafted story, and all the loose ends tie up neatly. I was very impressed with the intelligent yet subtle way Kerr wrote the final part of the novel.  He doesn’t go to great lengths to deceive.  Instead, Kerr leaves enough breadcrumbs for the reader to figure out the ending before it’s revealed.  It makes for a very satisfying resolution that’s true to Gunther’s characterization.

Highly Recommended!

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3 Comments

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  1. MB / Nov 26 2011 4:05 am

    I also love the Bernie Gunther series – and I think your review conveys the author’s winning mix of black humor and a classic tough-talking PI set against a dark period of German history. I can’t wait for Prague Fatale, scheduled for release in April 2012.

    • C.T. Henry / Nov 26 2011 1:59 pm

      I can’t wait for Prague Fatale either. I wonder why more people aren’t reading the series?

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