And Philip Marlowe thought that he lived in a corrupt civilization! He should have traveled to the Berlin of 1936. There, his fellow private eye Bernhard Gunther could have shown him what it’s like to go down streets that are really mean. In capital of Hitler’s Reich, the would-be knight-errant faces challenges that make Marlowe’s tribulations in greater Los Angeles seem about as vexing as a day at Santa Monica Beach. Up to a point, the imaginary realms in which these two imaginary sleuths ply their trade do have much in common. Each world is morally septic at its core. In Gunther’s Germany as in Marlowe’s Southern California, a cadre of image makers beguile the masses by offering visions of personal power and physical perfection—visions that, effect, provide cover for a class of goons who run the place down at the mean-street level. In both settings, the goons find cohorts and victims among ethically rudderless rich folk, and among a surprisingly large population of women who are emotionally lost, dangerously beautiful, and usually blonde. The goons in Nazi Germany, though, are more Teutonically efficient than their L.A. counterparts, and their brutal sway over the land gives the Bernie Gunthers in their midst very little room to operate. Gunther, the grizzled antihero of this first tale in a trilogy by Kerr (which has since grown to encompass seven volumes, and counting), fits the classic mold of a fictional private eye. He’s an ex-cop whose reasons for going it alone lie in a gray zone between ignominy and integrity. Sure, he hates the Nazis, but he’s no saint-in-a-trenchcoat; when he takes a case, his goal is not to save a soul but to earn a fair Pfennig.
In its beginnings, at least, the case here is one that Marlowe would recognize. Hired by a steel magnate to investigate the murder of his daughter and son-in-law, and also to recover a stolen necklace,Gunther starts out by rattling the cages of the criminal underclass, seeking clues from those who traffick in stolen goods, discounted lives, or both. In short order, though, his efforts rile the criminal overclass that runs the country. Members of the SS, the SA, and the Gestapo, and even Prime Minister Hermann Goering, take an unsettling interest in his work. Finally, after undergoing a host of beatings, a pair of seductions (one manipulative, one not), and a painful and painstakingly described stay at the Dachau concentration camp, Gunther succeeds about as well as an honest shamus in the Third Reich could ever hope to do. He finds the necklace, identifies a perpetrator for each of the many homicides that clutter his trail, and uncovers more information than he wants to have about the inner workings of the Nazi system. Still, one mystery of great personal importance to him remains open. What begins and mostly unfolds as an artful pastiche of the American detective story ends on a dark note that has a distinctly European ring to it: An echo from the world as envisioned by Kafka resounds in the distance. The detective has mastered one series of crimes, but he and the reader both sense that something unfathomably worse lies in the offing.