A Quiet Flame – Philip Kerr

A Quiet Flame – Philip Kerr

Book review of A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr

Although I am an admirer of Alan Furst’s wonderful books about 1930′s and 40′s spies (such as the recent Spies of the Balkans), I somehow missed Philip Kerr’s series about his Berlin detective Bernie Gunther.  I spotted his latest book Field Grey while browsing in a local bookshop (now sadly closing down) and its story of an ex-cop living a disreputable life in post-war Cuba looked interesting.

But I saw from the cover I saw that it was just one in a series so I went home and did a bit of checking and decided that a good place to start with Philip Kerr’s “Berlin Noir” novels was A Quiet Flame which was first published in 2008.  And what a great read it was being suspenseful, full of historic detail, and also pleasingly literate and well-written.

The main story begins in Beunos Aires in 1950, where Bernie Gunther has managed to emigrate to, partly to get away from the devastation of his homeland and the personal history he is trying to get away from.  Within a few weeks he is recruited by President Peron’s secret police to investigate an unsolved murder which bears striking resemblances to two similar cases he encountered in Berlin in 1932.

The book alternates between these two time periods – a device I usually dislike in a novel as it can give a very disjointed flow to the book.  However, Philip Kerr creates two equally interesting scenarios in Berlin and Buenos Aires and the links between the two cases are so strong that the device works well and I found no sense of disconnection between the two stories.

In 1930s Berlin we read of Bernie’s arguments with colleagues who are slowly drifting one by on into the Nazi party.  Bernie is a Social Democrat and loathes Hitler and all he stands for, but he encounters an atmosphere of inevitability about the Nazi climb to power.  

The cases he is investigating (which bear so much resemblance to the Buenos Aire’s killing twenty years later), involve the ritualised murder of two young women of dubious morals – one of whom happens to be the disabled daughter of a Nazi Party member.  

When Gunther interviews the parents of the girl he finds that they are strangely unmoved about her death, partly because having a child with cerebral palsy was an embarrassment to a family that supported Hitler’s policies on eugenics and social cleansing.

Back in Buenos Aires, Gunther encounters many members of the Nazi party, many of whom seem to think that South America is going to offer them a springboard on which to regroup and launch another attempt at launching the master-race.

The author brings in real-life characters, Juan and Evita Peron, Adolf Eichmann and Joseph Mengele, the latter being particularly chilling encounters for Bernie for although they have been stripped of their power, their air of menace remains.

The book is full of twists and turns, intrigues and revelations, and is a wholly satisfying read.  Bernie Gunther is a hard-bitten cop, but his character shines through the book, as he searches for justice for the memory of the dead girls of both countries.  I shall definitely read the other novels in the Bernie Gunther series, with Field Grey already waiting on my Kindle.

And speaking of the Kindle, thanks to those who read and commented my previous article about this device.  I didn’t want to suggest that I won’t be reading books in paper format – I have a huge pile of them waiting to be tackled.  

However, I will probably miss the extreme portability of the Kindle and if offered digital version of these books I’d do a straight swap without hesitation.

In the past I have tended to be a little fetishistic about books.  The smell, the look and feel, the sheer bookishness of them has appealed to me greatly and I have easily slipped into collecting large numbers of them to grace my shelves.  

However, since writing this blog, to be honest I’ve grown tired of the piles of books which accumulate.  I’ve taken large numbers of review copies down to the charity shop or passed them on to friends and relatives.

If I had limitless shelves I’d probably feel different but as it is, I’m trying to keep my library down to about 200 favourite books and the rest can go.  I’m probably in the last quarter of my life now and as the saying goes, “You can’t take it with you”, whether money or other possessions.  De-cluttering is the order of the day as far as I’m concerned.