Tag Archives: Philip Kerr

Kerr’s Prussian Blue up next

bluePrussian Blue.  It’s 528 pages of fictional Berlin detective Bernie Gunther interacting with Nazis in (framing device) 1956 and (very meaty main plot) 1939… and I have to say, it’s the most interesting and entertaining Philip Kerr book I’ve read.   It’s the fourth book that I’m reading, reviewing and ranking in the Literary Lunchbox take on the MWA Edgar for Best Novel.

As previously mentioned, I’m generally not into historical mysteries, especially those featuring swastikas (notable exception:  The Boys From Brazil).  I’ve read two Bernie Gunther books previously, when they were up for Edgars, and generally ranked them towards the bottom of the list.  (Field Gray review  and The Lady From Zagreb here.)  In fairness to me, they didn’t win.

kerrThat situation might change this year, as, sad to say, Philip Kerr passed away recently at the age of 62.  It certainly made me want to give Prussian Blue a full and fair reading, which meant slowing down, and paying especially close attention.  So that’s what I did.  It paid off.

The book begins in 1956 on the French Riviera, with our smart-and-jaded Bernie working as a hotel detective, still hoping for a reconciliation with his estranged wife when he gets an invitation to meet her for dinner.  He goes and is surprised to find that his dinner companion is not his wife, but a long-time enemy, Erich Mielke, now deputy head of Stasi, the East Germany Security Service.  Mielke wants Bernie to poison a former colleague in order to tie up some loose ends from a previous situation, but Bernie’s smart enough to know that even if he accedes to the request, he’ll become the next “loose end” requiring tying up.  Mielke’s thugs – including Frederich Korsch, a man Bernie knew well back in the day – bring him to the brink of death to secure his cooperation, but this only makes stubborn Bernie determined not to do their bidding.  He goes on the run.  While making his escape, Bernie reflects upon a previous case that brought him close to Hitler himself, even as Germany was readied for the attack on Poland that would launch WWII.

Fade to April, 1939.  A man has been shot on the terrace at Hitler’s private home at Berchtesgaden.  It’s critical to solve the murder and ensure security before Hitler arrives there for his 50th birthday celebration.  Nazi boss Reinhard Heydrich assigns Commissar Gunther – a smart, honest cop – to solve the crime.  On arrival, Bernie finds that he must please Martin Bormann, who runs the show.  It’s soon clear that there is no failure allowed – the crime will be solved, either by finding the killer, or fitting one up. 

Bernie’s not surprised to find that the dead man, a local engineer named Karl Flex, is incredibly unpopular with the locals, throwing people out of their homes in forced sales at bargain basement prices, strong-arming the local whores, and serving as Bormann’s bag man on cash runs to Switzerland.  The entire enclave is a money machine for Bormann and his crew.  These facts come out over time, and offer Bernie and his assistants, Frederich Korsch and local SS Capt. Hermann Kaspel, a plethora of potential murderers.  And it soon becomes clear that there are some that would prefer to see Bernie fail, as there is more than one attempt on his life.  When Kaspel is killed in a rigged car wreck when Bernie should have been with him, Bernie knows he must be making progress.

Bernie does discover who killed Flex and why, and sets out to capture him, accompanied by one of Bormann’s aides, Wilhelm Zander.  Bernie believes that if he can arrest the man, justice will be done, Bormann will release the innocent fall guy currently in the clink, and he’ll be able to get two inept cops off the hook (they’re facing a firing squad for no good reason).  But misplaced optimism is a Bernie Gunther hallmark… so when he captures the killer, Zander shoots him, then turns the gun on Bernie.  Our hero escapes, but mostly due to dumb luck.  And while things turn out okay for him, when he returns to Bavaria, he learns that all three of the men he’d hoped to save had been killed that morning.  He also meets a dead end in his quest to bring down Bormann.

Flash forward to 1956 – his 1939 friend and colleague, Frederich Korsch is now his enemy, but Bernie has a new name and a new chance at freedom in Munich.

I know.  It’s a lot of plot.  And I left a ton out.

There’s a lot to like about this book.  With some minimal wikipedia-ing, I am convinced that Kerr did a great job on the historical accuracy aspect of it.  I have no problem believing that he also did an excellent job in his portrayal of historical figures.  One character – female architect Gerdy Troost, who was a staunch Nazi and strong Hitler admirer – decides to help Bernie root out the corruption, and she is a sympathetic figure in Kerr’s hands.  Characters are fleshed out and credible.  The plot is twisty and the violence is compelling and realistic.  Also, Kerr has a wonderful way with words.  I had to stifle myself from reading selections out loud to my husband; after the third such passage, Mark was out of patience.

The best thing about Prussian Blue is Bernie Gunther himself.  He’s sharp and funny, is more likely to get beaten to a pulp than he is to do the beating, and is liable to succeed mostly through sheer persistence, but also gets a normal helping of dumb luck along the way.  His morality is like Teflon; despite all the evil he sees, it endures.  As he thought back to that April in 1939 and all that had occurred, he reflected, “Most of all I remembered being almost twenty years younger and possessed of a sense of decency and honor I now found almost quaint.  For a while back here, I think I sincerely believe I was the only honest man I knew.”  He may be rueful, but at the core, he’s unchanged.

So how does the book stack up with the other nominees?  For character, complications, plot and atmosphere, I’ve got to give it up for Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue.  It goes to the top of the ranking.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr
  2. Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke
  3. The Dime by Kathleen Kent
  4. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
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MWA Edgar: Best Novel

Best Novel 18

It’s about a month until the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards banquet on April 26, so that gives me a few weeks to read (or re-read) the five nominees.  Of the group, I’ve already read Bluebird Bluebird and The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, but reading to review and rank is not the same as reading for fun… it takes a more careful reading and a critical eye.  So I’ll be reading them again; I do recall liking them both.

I’ll admit I had a little bit of a heavy heart when I saw that Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue was up for the Edgar… it’s over 500 pages long and (gulp) historical.  Never my favorite.  And I said so in 2016, when The Lady from Zagreb was nominated (see more here) and in 2012, when his Field Gray was up for the award (ditto).  All three books feature WWII era spy Bernie Gunther.  I didn’t pick Kerr to win in 2012 or 2016, and sure enough, he didn’t.   So I’m going to build up to him slowly, and pick off the shorter books first!

That being said, first up is Kathleen Kent’s The Dime.   Dallas PD’s Betty Rhyzyk’s not your typical drug squad detective – she’s a transplanted Brooklyn cop, a tall, red-haired Polish lesbian.  She and her team are about to arrest a cocaine distributor and his supplier when a woman shows up, upset that her neighbor left his dog in his car on a hot day.  She calls the cops, an officer shows up, Betty and her partner stand by hoping it gets resolved quickly, when the supplier shows up.  The distributor dies, the cop dies, the Samaritan dies, one of Betty’s team is injured, and Ruiz gets away.  The one good thing?  Betty’s partner Seth adopts the dog.

The homicide squad takes over, but Betty and her guys keep working the case, determined to run Ruiz to ground and salvage the drug bust.  They chase down Ruiz’s girlfriend, Lana Yu, and the next thing we know, Lana’s dead, throat cut and her ears cut off, and a the stripe of dyed red in her head of black hair is gone as well.  When Lana’s missing hank of hair turns up in Betty’s bed while her partner, Jackie, lies there sleeping, it starts to look like Betty is being targeted.  When Ruiz’s head is delivered to Betty’s apartment in a box, it’s confirmed.   And when Betty and Hoskins, one of the team, are lured out of town, where Ruiz’s headless body has been found, it’s shocking but not surprising that Hoskins is killed and Betty kidnapped.   A crazy, religion-obsessed woman lives with her two criminal sons, and she wants Betty to bear her a grandchild.  Betty’s held captive for over a week until she finally makes a violent escape.

The Dime is a competent police procedural.  Betty has a solid backstory, and Kent does a good job of showing it in the first few chapters.  The relationship between Betty and the men she works with rings true, although perhaps a little too supportive; it’s hard to imagine that Texas cops are all that welcoming to New York lesbians.  She has a solid, loving relationship with her partner, and a little expected friction with Jackie’s family.  The best thing about the book is  Betty’s voice.  Told in the first person, she comes across as grounded and no-nonsense.

As the first one reviewed, The Dime takes top billing in the Literary Lunchbox ranking.  Frankly, it’s hard to imagine that it will stay there – when compared to other Edgar-award winners such as Mr. Mercedes, Ordinary Grace, The Last Child, or Goneit’s just not special enough to make the cut.  Let’s see!

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. The Dime by Kathleen Kent

 

Night Life Penultimate Best Novel Nom

nightlifeSo here we go with another historical crime novel – David C. Taylor’s Night Life.  It’s his debut novel and it garnered an Edgar nomination for Mystery Writers of America Best Novel. Well-done, Taylor!

It’s 1954, and the cold war is in the deep freeze.  Michael Cassidy’s a New York City detective, smart, sometimes violent but only with a good reason, who has odd dreams that sometimes come true. Cassidy and his partner Tony Orso are called to investigate the torture and murder of Alex Ingram, who coincidentally was a dancer in a show that Tom Cassidy, his father, is producing.  Cassidy discovers a half-dollar coin in a buff envelope taped inside Ingram’s locker at the theater.

Things spiral from there, with an ever-widening scope of investigation, a growing body count, and plenty of interest from the FBI, CIA, and even Senator Joseph McCarthy, who finds a communist everywhere he looks.  He may be an obsessive nut job, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real communist spies hard at work right here in NYC.  It turns out that Ingram was a KGB sleeper agent with a sideline in blackmail.  

On the personal front, Cassidy’s expecting retaliation from Franklin, a vice cop-slash-pimp.  Cassidy not only interrupted Franklin mid-assault on a hooker, but threw him out a window.  And he’s distracted by a new resident of his apartment building, a comely young woman who’s a welder working for an artist, bringing his metal sculptures to life.  (She wields a pretty mean baseball bat, too, rescuing Cassidy when Franklin’s buddies give him a beating in the apartment hallway.)  He’s close to his brother, Brian and sister, Leah, but not so close to his father, Tom.  His mother killed herself, more or less accidentally, taking an overdose of pills when she thought Tom would be coming home and would rescue her, thus bringing them closer together.  Unfortunately, Tom is essentially selfish, decided not to keep his promise, and teenage Michael discovered his mother’s cold body.

More about Cassidy’s father. More problems there.  He was born in Russia – Tomas Kasnavietski – emigrating to the US at age 15.  A staunch believer in the American dream, he’s surprised and dismayed to find that in 1954 America, Tom Cassidy’s about to be deported back to Russia.  His faith in his son and his friends to rescue him is unshaken.  Unfortunately, the friend is “Uncle Frank,” a mobster who wants a favor from Cassidy.

Fortunately, Cassidy’s a good detective, a smart negotiator and a good bluffer, with a stalwart partner and chutzpah to spare.  Still, it could have all gone sideways if it were not for his prophetic dreams… at the moment when the bad guys are about to ambush him, Cassidy recognizes the location and the sinking sense of dread from a recurrent dream.  It gives him the warning he needs to be the one left standing.

I’m very impressed with author David Taylor.  Night Life is tightly plotted, the coincidences not all that unlikely, the motivations for all clear and character-driven, and the integration of historical figures critical to the story, not distracting add-ons.  I understand that this is the first in a series featuring Det. Michael Cassidy, and I’ll be right there to read more in the future.  (In fact, book #2, Night Work, launched earlier this month.)

How does Night Life stack up to the other nominees?   Very, very well.  It’s eminently readable, like The Strangler Vine.  It’s got excellent pacing and similar switches in POV to keep up the suspense, as with Life or Death.  It’s got that paranormal aspect to it, as does Let Me Die in His Footsteps.   And it incorporates real-life historical figures, as does The Lady From Zagreb.  In fact, considering the whole package, I’m going to give Taylor’s debut mystery the top spot.  I may have reviewer’s regret when I review and rank the final nominee, Canary, and make some changes.  But time is running out, as the Edgars will be awarded Thursday!

Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Novel

mwa_logo

  1. Night Life by David C. Taylor
  2. Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
  3. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  4. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
  5. The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

Kerr Again Nominated for Best Novel

zagrebShades of 2012!  Philip Kerr is up again for an MWA Edgar Award for Best Novel for a Bernie Gunther historical crime novel.  This year’s entry is The Lady from Zagreb.  In 2012, it was Field Gray.   He didn’t win in 2012 – the award went to Mo Hayder’s Gone, which I adored – and I had ranked Field Gray fourth on my list.  Click here to read that review.

If you’ve clicked, you know that I struggled mightily with that book.  This one has many of the same issues, but I went into it bound and determined to give it a good shot. It’s set mostly in 1942/43, although the book opens in 1956 with Bernie in a movie theater, watching a film featuring the lovely Dalia Dresner.  This leads him in a reverie, remembering his time together with the movie star.

How did Bernie Gunther, the reluctant Nazi, get hooked up with Dalia Dresner, who was even more fantastic than Hedy Lamarr? It’s a long story.  Very long, given the side trips that Bernie has to traverse to tell it.

Here’s a quick overview:  Bernie is tapped to give a speech at an international police conference at the Villa Minoux. Attorney Heinrich Heckholz wants Bernie to to snoop around while he’s there,  to find some evidence he needs to help Lilly Minoux, who used to own the house, get it back (complicated story).  Bernie’s game.  He finds tons of info, but nothing helpful to Minoux.  When he goes to report, he finds Heckholz is beaten to death with a bust of Hitler in his office. This is treated as black humor.

Fast forward a year.  Joseph Goebbels asks Bernie to help movie star Dalia Dresner locate her estranged father. Goebbels, who is in charge of the German Film Industry, has it bad for Dalia.  Dalia’s married, uninterested in Goebbels romantically, but willing to let him help her.  Sure enough, Bernie is besotted by Dalia and would do almost anything to help her, include traveling to Yugoslavia to find her father.  We get the hint that he might not be the nicest guy.  In exchange for a great car to drive to Yugoslavia in, Bernie also runs an errand for General Schallenberg.

Along the way, Bernie witnesses some horrific cruelties, mass murders that makes the concentration camp gas chambers look humane.  He finds Dalia’s dad, and the man is a monster.  He gets kidnapped and almost tortured by American spies, but gets saved by the Gestapo, who also want to murder him.  Fortunately, they want to get him drunk and throw him off a cliff, and thanks to the highly flammable nature of the drink and the bad guy’s naiveté regarding a final cigarette, Bernie prevails.

Back in Germany, he and Goebbels agree to lie to Dalia.  But of course Daddy dearest comes looking for her, and when he does, he gets a big surprise.  As does Bernie.  Being endowed with great insight,  Bernie deduces the truth.  He figures out a way to save the day, but it requires him to give up Dalia, the love of his life, or at least, his loins.

As I noted in 2012, Kerr has a wonderful way with words.  His convoluted plot, if presented in a straightforward manner, would be dark, depressing, dour…  Fortunately, he has given Bernie a wry sense of humor and the dialogue is often surprisingly breezy.   And as I also admitted, I am not a very good historian.  I do poorly when it comes to the yellow pie slices in Trivial Pursuit.  So I am always distracted by trying to figure out which characters are real and which are not, and if the real ones were really like that, or if Kerr is taking liberties.  I’m pretty sure nobody talked like Kerr makes them talk.  Anyway, the author’s note at the end is very helpful in clearing up details like that.

What did I think this time around?  I definitely liked it way more than Field Gray.  I like the Bernie Gunther character and the plot was much more constrained (although still filled with what-the-heck? moments).  And there’s a final twist that I definitely did not see coming, so props to Kerr for that.

Comparatively speaking, I definitely preferred Lori Roy’s novel Let Me Die in His Footsteps, which has an equally surprising plot twist but is much more character-driven.  Does Lady have an edge over Life or Death?  Not quite, the stakes are much higher for Audie Palmer.  You never really think that Bernie’s in any danger, and you don’t really care about any of the other characters.  And I really was surprised by how much I liked The Strangler Vine.  So here it goes to the #4 spot, where Kerr was last time.  

Note – not sure what is up with the sheer number of not-set-in-the-present nominees.  So far only Life or Death has been set in present day, the other three are all historical!

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Novel

  1. Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
  2. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  3. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
  4. The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

Pondering the international flavor of this year’s Edgar nominees

Of the authors who have books nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Novel, only one’s American:  Ace Atkins.  Mo Hayder is British, Keigo Higashino is Japanese, Anne Holt is Norwegian, and Philip Kerr is British.  Hmm.  It got me thinking – is this an unusual year, or is there usually such an international flavor?

Let’s check it out.  I visited the MWA Edgar website, which has an awesome, searchable database.  Seriously, check it out here.  Want to know if your favorite author ever won an Edgar?  Want to know who won every year for the last ten years so you can make a library run?  Whatever you want to know, it’s there.

From 2003 to 2011, there were 48 books and 44 authors nominated for a Best Novel Edgar.  Michael Connelly, Ken Bruen, Laura Lippman and John Hart were all nominated twice – and John Hart won in both years!  Connelly, Bruen, and Lippman did not receive the award either time they were nominated in the last ten years.

Of the 44 nominees, 29 (or 2/3) are American.   The other 1/3 are not.  Of these: 4 are British.  4 are Irish.  3 are Scottish.  1 is Japanese. 1 is Norwegian.  1 is Swedish. 1 is South African.

So – yay!  I’m not nuts.  This year’s MWA nominees for Best Novel are definitely skewed towards the international.

But how does a book get nominated, anyway?  The work must be submitted for consideration, and to be considered, it must have been published in the United States for the first time during the year previous (so 2012 submissions must have been published in 2011).  Publishers must have met the MWA criteria.  For Best Novel, publication must have been in hard copy. Publishers are expected to submit the works, but authors or agents may do so.

And from here, it’s a big blur.  The MWA website is weak in this regard, it appears that either how the works are judged is considered common knowledge or it is considered proprietary.  I do know that many people read the submissions and there is an ongoing process to winnow it down to the top six and then the ultimate winner.  There’s no nomination committee and then voting – it’s all done by the same people.

Here’s a blog post from last year from Bruce Hollingdrake at The Bookshop Blog.  It’s pretty helpful.