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.
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