March Violets, by Philip Kerr

“March violets” is a derogatory term for those Germans who, after Hitler’s ascension to power, suddenly became ardent supporters of National Socialism. This detective novel, the first in Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy, takes place in 1936 as the city prepares to host the Olympics by hiding the more egregious evidence of policies attacking Jews and others considered undesirable.

Ex-policeman Bernie Gunther has set up as a private investigator. In the best noir tradition, he works alone from a small office and regards the moral poverty of his clients and the government with cynical amusement. Many of his cases involve searching for missing persons, usually Jews, whose families are desperate for news of them. Bernie is not a Nazi but is careful of what he says and does, observing the necessary forms: the salutes, the chants of “Heil, Hitler”.

Hired by a wealthy industrialist whose daughter and son-in-law have been murdered, Bernie’s assignment is to recover a valuable diamond necklace that was stolen from a safe in the couple’s bedroom. His investigation leads him into cabarets, police interrogation rooms, the clutches of a couple of femmes fatale, and a seat at the Olympics to watch Jesse Owens compete. He finds a conspiracy that seems to involve low-level criminals, officials like Goering and Himmler, and possibly even his own client.

I’m grateful to my friend Steve for recommending this author. Admittedly, I was skeptical of how the historical context would play out and, as Steve warned, it is a little odd to have these monsters of history wandering in and out of the story. The description of the atmosphere of pre-war Berlin and the political nuances of the insidious spread of Nazism are among the best things in the book.

My only quibble comes towards the end. In one too many plot twists, Bernie is briefly sent to Dachau. As a privileged prisoner, he observes the suffering of others and, when he can, tries to alleviate it. The scenes in the concentration camp are passed over quickly—descriptive and moving, yes, but not given the attention such a significant situation demands.

The concept of emotional weight was brought home to me a few years ago. I’d written a number of short stories about single mothers, skipping quickly over the reason for the absent husband/father. Yet every critique group honed in on that brief dismissal as a flaw, wanting to know more about the divorce or death or desertion. I was dismayed because this backstory was not relevant to the story I wanted to tell. I began to suspect that the only stories we were allowed to tell about women were love stories.

However, I finally understood that it was the emotional weight of these events that was pulling my stories askew. Death and divorce are huge life changes and not something to be dismissed in a sentence. By mentioning them, I was inviting the reader to participate in them emotionally. As one workshop leader said, “Do not set up a door for the reader unless you are going to open it.”

In Kerr’s book, the emotional weight of the concentration camp distorts the rest of the story. As a reader, I could not be satisfied with a few brief scenes of camp life before being returned to the streets of Berlin and the “larger” puzzle. It felt wrong to me. Kerr might have done better not to go there at all. Still, March Violets is the first of the series, so much can be forgiven. The noir aspects work surprisingly well; the characters are strong; and the plot (other than my one quibble) excitingly torturous. I will certainly try some of his other books.

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