The very first of Philip Kerr’s WW2 Bernie Gunther investigations arrives as a republished stand-alone ebook (previously it was packaged up with The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem to form the ‘Berlin Noir’ trilogy) with perfect timing, just as the 12th book in the series is launched. It’s a clever move. March Violets is set in Nazi Germany on the brink of hostilities, and another episode from that time period is told in the new book, Prussian Blue. In a dozen books, Kerr has covered almost two decades in the life of his cynical-but-honourable detective, and his most recent story picks up many of the threads from the very first. So it’s well worth going back to March Violets – even if you’ve read it before, as I had, many moons before this kind of fiction was popular – before starting the new Prussian Blue.
March Violets is by current standards a slim book and Kerr’s writing is quite different to his modern style. It’s honed to a stylised edge in every respect; not a single word is wasted. You get the sense that every phrase and paragraph was selectively sculpted, chipped away to expose the stark skeleton of literary excellence.
Of course, quite a few readers who are only familiar with the current Bernie Gunther books won’t like the deliberate fusion of Chandleresque hardboiled pulp fiction with the ruthless realism of Nazi oppression. Kerr deliberately transposed the wry style of a Golden Age American gumshoe story to a discordant historical time period. For some readers the juxtaposition of wise-cracking one-liners alongside the brutal jackboot of fascism seems disrespectful. I’d argue the opposite: that one throws the other into sharper relief. That the blue-eyed dames who evoke spectacular similes underscore the insidious splintering of society. (The clue is in the title: the original Gunther books were Berlin Noir. The modern ones are ‘thrillers’). If March Violets feels uncomfortable, perhaps that’s because it still has powerful resonance right now.
However, Kerr stopped writing Gunther books for quite a while after the Berlin Noir trilogy was complete. When the series re-emerged in its current form he’d adopted a rather more mainstream style of storytelling. The Gunther of March Violets is recognisably the same man who appears in Prussian Blue, but he’s written quite differently. There’s a lot less edge to the current novel, and an awful lot more words. The brevity of March Violets can be deceptive: it may be slight but it is deep and Kerr explains less than is the current fashion. Often the significance is in the silence and not the superficial statement. March Violets requires you to join the dots yourself: Prussian Blue spoon-feeds the facts.
March Violets also contains a cracking murder mystery, alongside the politics, history, social commentary and masterclass writing. It’s stuffed with realistic-sounding military and street slang and endless acronyms. For fans of Kerr’s early writing (like me) it’s definitely worth re-visiting. And modern Bernie Gunther enthusiasts will be entertained to see the character’s formative years, even if the writing isn’t to all tastes.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
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