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In this chapter in the life of Bernie Gunther, the tenth to date, the detective and reluctant Nazi finds himself working in a private capacity for Joseph Goebbels, not a prospective employer one can safely refuse. Goebbels, who as Propaganda Minister oversaw German film production, wishes to convince the beautiful Dalia Dresner to star in a forthcoming major film. But she is reluctant to commit, saying she is concerned about her father, who seems to have dropped out of sight in Yugoslavia. Can Gunther do something to relieve her mind and lift her spirits? After meeting Dalia, and falling instantly in love with her, Bernie decides he can.
In a note at the end of the book, Kerr thanks the president of Putnam for encouraging him to undertake yet another in the series as he was beginning to think that perhaps it had run its course. He needn't have worried, as THE LADY FROM ZAGREB is hardly the mixture as before. Yes, Bernie takes refuge in the same cynicism as he has always done; yes, he still treads a narrow and not always definite path between integrity and corruption and both he and the reader are not altogether sure that he successfully retains his moral core. Yes, Kerr still provides a well-researched and uncompromising portrait of Nazi horror and of the men who implemented it. But in the Dalia plot line, ZAGREB also gives Gunther and the reader a bit of time off. Here Kerr returns to the American noir fiction from which Gunther sprang. Though the author cites Hedy Lamarr as part inspiration for Dalia, it is hard not to hear Bacall and Bogart speaking the exchanges between Dresner and Gunther. And as the plot unfolds, it is very much something that Raymond Chandler might have invented, though perhaps a bit more coherent. Bernie admits, though perhaps not fully seriously, to being a romantic, one who will save a damsel in distress even at the risk of his own life, and in the end, that is what he is called upon to do. The Dalia story, and particularly its outcome, is a brilliant homage to American noir.
Straight up detection plays a somewhat larger role here than some of the earlier books in the series. The detective is, by definition, a necessary enemy of a regime that depends on lies for its continued existence. And Gunther is pre-eminently a detective. As he says, "...sometimes you have to know something because that's just how you are made, and what really matters is what you do about it afterward. Or don't do about it. It all depends on what it is you end up knowing." Bernie does some very impressive detecting in this book, but in the insane world in which he trying to survive, it hardly matters. He does find out the truth about several murders, but in the context of the continent-wide orgy of mass murder, what indeed can he do about it that would make any difference? And in any event, he commits a murder or two himself along the way.
As the Bernie Gunther saga unfolds (and promises to continue), it more and more appears to confirm Hegel's comment that "the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history." Bernie must cool his heels in a Yugoslav waiting room adorned with photos of appalling atrocities, which, he says, "made Goya's disasters of war look like a set of illustrated place mats." He tries not to look, but cannot turn his gaze away. Of course he identifies with the suffering victims and asks himself the question most of us must have asked in recent years, "What was it like to kneel in front of a man who was about to cut your head off with a knife?" In this case, the instigators of the atrocities were not Islamic State fanatics but Roman Catholic priests, but the immediate brutality of the act remains the same.
Along with Philip Kerr, I would like to thank Ivan Held at Putnam for encouraging him to produce yet more in the Bernie story. Living as we do at a time when absolutism seems on the rise and we are being asked to sign up for one form of zealotry or another, it is important to be reminded that, as Gunther himself concludes, "Good people are never as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren't as bad. Not half as bad. On different days we're all good. And on other days, we're evil. That's the story of my life. That's the story of everyone's life." Morally compromised or knight in shining armour, Bernie is due to return next year in THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE and that is something definitely to look forward to.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2015
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