The Lady from Zagreb (Bernie Gunther Series #10)

THE LADY FROM ZAGREB is the tenth book in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series.  Gunther a former homicide detective before the rise of Nazism, an ideology that he finds abhorrent, is a character in absorbing historical thrillers that are set in Germany in the 1930s, World War II, and the Cold War.  Gunther is a very self-effacing and likeable individual who is one-quarter Jewish and has a propensity to offer humorous wisecracks that cut to the core of a German history between 1933 and 1945, a time frame that has destroyed the lives of millions of people.  In Kerr’s current effort we find Gunther in the French Riviera circa, 1956 reminiscing about World War II, and his relationship with a beautiful German actress, Dalia Dresner.  The novel binds together a number of plot lines.  We find Dr. Joseph Goebbles, the head of the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda and National Enlightenment with his own policy and sexual agenda; a series of murders, one happening to have been a client of Gunther; the intrigue of wartime Switzerland with spies ranging from the head of the Office of Strategic Services, Allen W. Dulles to SS Brigadefuhrer Walter Schellenberg who would become the head of Nazi foreign intelligence; a Hitlerite plan to invade Switzerland, and a plot to prevent such an invasion in the name of bringing about negotiations to end the war; the barbarity and cruelty of the Balkans that fifty years later would explode in Yugoslavia; and of course the machinations of Detective Gunther with his constant cynicism and sarcasm.

Kerr is a talented writer who weaves important historical characters and events throughout his story.  The narrative involves numerous historical figures that include Dr. Goebbles; Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop; SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, in charge of the Nazi genocide of the Jews; SS Obergruppenfuhrer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office; SS Brigadefuhrer Schellenberg; SS Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust and Chief of the Reich Main Security Office before his assassination; SS Gruppenfuhrer Arthur Nebbe, Gunther’s boss and a mass murderer in Bialystok during the war; Allen W. Dulles; Anten Pavelic, Croatian leader of the murderous Ustase; Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Nazi ally; and many other important figures.  Historical events are also not neglected as the Russian genocide of Polish officers at the Katyn Forest; the destruction of the Czech village of Lidice as punishment for the assassination of Heydrich; the allied bombings of Dresden and Hamburg; the slaughter in the Balkans; and Nazi war plans are all integrated into the novel.

(Joseph Goebbles Nazi Propaganda Minister)

Gunther’s personality, wit, cynicism and charm remain the same in Kerr’s latest effort.  His pointed historical commentary are as irreverent as always.  Finding himself in Croatia and a witness to the slaughter between Croats, Serbs and Muslims as he searches for Dalia Dresner’s father, who supposedly is living in a monastery, brings about the question as to “how does a Franciscan monk get to be an Ustase Colonel?” The answer offered is “by being an efficient killer of Serbs.” In describing Goebbles, Gunther said that while he was wearing a white summer suit, he looked “exactly like a male nurse in an insane asylum, which was perhaps not so very far from the truth.”    In addition, upon meeting the Grand Mufti’s guards, Gunther wondered why Hitler hated Jews and not Arabs.  “After all, some Jews are just Muslims with better tailors.”  In thinking about his own experiences on the eastern front and now facing the realities of the Holocaust, Gunther explores the competition inside the Nazi bureaucracy between the SS and SD, the Gestapo and the SD, Goebbles and Goering, Kalternbrunner and Himmler, the SS and the Nazi Party, the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht, and the role of German businesses.  In particular, Gunther is confronted by the use of slave labor by Siemens and Daimler-Benz during the war and he hopes that in the future historians will research what they have done and inform the public.  Recently in the case of Siemens his request was answered by Sarah Helm’s new book RAVENSBRUK, and in the case of Daimler-Benz, Neil Gregor and Bernard Bellon have exposed their crimes, though neither corporation has ever admitted their guilt or paid the appropriate compensation to their victims.  Further, as he is confronted by death seemingly at every turn, Gunther ponders whether German crimes are the worst in history.  Referencing the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, the British in India, Belgians in the Congo, Spain in the New World, and Russia under Stalin in the 1930s, the detective surmises that Germany is in good company when it comes to historical atrocities.

(Swiss-German border)

Gunther is an excellent detective that seems to find trouble no matter the situation.  At the outset Gunther, who has been transferred to the Third Reich War Crimes Department (Kerr really has a sense of the absurd), is forced to make a speech at a police convention.  From that point on the story begins to evolve.  Gunther begins to investigate the murder of a former client at the same time as Goebbles assigns him to find Dalia’s father.  On this mission Gunther becomes entangled with the Swiss police and other spies.  In addition, Gunther learns that there is an effort to try and bring about negotiations to end the war and that certain SS officials are buying barracks from the Swiss to use in concentration camps.  All of these situations come together, while at the same time Gunther tries to follow his conscience and accomplish his goals while working within the Nazi system.  As Kerr has written he does not like heroes who behave heroically, and in Bernie Gunther he has created just such a protagonist. The dialogue between the characters is very entertaining and Kerr manages to repeatedly raise the issue of morality in the context of Gunther’s actions, a very difficult task.

Without going into any further detail of the story, Kerr has once again created a successful mystery that will keep the reader fascinated and entertained as they are taken to another time and place.  If you enjoyed the previous offerings in the Bernie Gunther novels, THE LADY FROM ZAGREB will not disappoint.  As far as Bernie Gunther’s future is concerned in a recent interview Kerr said he was already planning for the eleventh book in the series.

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