Whether it's last year's "Black Water Rising," Attica Locke's legal thriller set in 1980s Houston, or Dan Fesperman's Vlado Petric mysteries, a little history with my mystery makes the pages fly. Popular of late have been mysteries set between World Wars I and II -- Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series and Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge mysteries have been particularly satisfying in their portraits of England in those years and the cost that war exacts from their protagonists.
While Winspear and Todd may have a higher profile, English writer Philip Kerr has been mining the interregnum between the wars for more than 20 years, starting with 1989's "March Violets," his acclaimed debut mystery featuring German ex-cop Bernie Gunther.
The "Berlin Noir" trilogy -- "March Violets" and two other novels -- along with two additional novels, interweaves the story of the rise and fall of Nazi Germany with that of a man whose moral compass is challenged by the enemy within.
Bernie Gunther is back in "If the Dead Rise Not," which serves as both a prequel to the "Berlin Noir" trilogy and an extension of the series.
Divided into two parts, the new novel takes place in Berlin in 1934 as Germany is undergoing a Nazification in everything from policing to sports, a process that the independent-minded Bernie wants no parts of: " 'Germany awake' was the slogan on everyone's lips, only it appeared to me that we were clock-stepping in our sleep toward some terrible but as yet unknown disaster."
Bernie has left the Berlin branch of KRIPO, Germany's state police department, in the wake of a National Socialist purge the year before, finding what appears to be a safe harbor as a house detective at the famous Adlon Hotel.
But trouble has a way of finding and punishing Bernie: First, he gut-punches a KRIPO detective who questions his loyalty to "the Leader" and then moves the unconscious man to the lobby of another hotel. Then, as he is talking with a former colleague at KRIPO about helping a Jewish friend, Bernie learns that the Nazis plan to strip Jews of their German citizenship, even if they have only one Jewish grandparent (which Bernie does).
So Bernie scrambles, trying to find a forger who can trim branches from the Gunther family tree (by doctoring church records) and dodging the cops hunting the attacker of their colleague. But that isn't all. He also takes on two disparate assignments: solving the theft of a Chinese artifact from the suite of Max Reles, an American businessman at the Adlon; and helping an American Jewish writer, Noreen Charalambides, with her Herald Tribune exposé about increasing German hostility toward Jews -- a fact somehow overlooked by Avery Brundage and the U.S. Olympic Committee during a visit there before voting to participate in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
The Olympic Games are an obsession for Hitler and his Third Reich henchmen, and Kerr does a superb job of detailing the politics behind Germany's preparation for the Games and the extreme measures employed to ensure that Germany was prepared to not only host but also excel at the Games using only Aryan athletes. Kerr's plausible manipulation of historical facts in telling a story that also includes the murder of a Jewish boxer and several others along the way serves to not only enlighten the reader but also create a series of moral dilemmas for Bernie and Noreen completely consistent with the era.
Among this novel's many strengths is how Kerr manages to impart so much information without letting it get in the way of a fast-moving plot: He is also very good at showing us Bernie's sardonic wit and the burgeoning love affair between him and Noreen. Even when the story jumps about 20 years -- in the process skipping over other books in the series -- and lands in 1954 Havana with an older (but not necessarily wiser) Bernie, Noreen and Reles, Kerr is still in total control of his story, managing his characters, complex plot and intersections among assorted Nazis and communists, dictators and American gangsters with equal aplomb.
Whether this novel is the reader's first taste of Bernie Gunther or another course in the series, "If the Dead Rise Not" is a richly satisfying mystery, one that evokes the noir sensibilities of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald while breaking important new ground of its own.
Woods is a frequent Times contributor and the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.