The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

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Reviewed by Linda Boa

Well, after a short break, during which the ubiquitous Philip Kerr wrote Research and Prayer, Bernie Gunther has returned by popular demand for his tenth outing. To be honest, I think this is only the third or fourth I’ve read. But true addicts, don’t worry – not a lot has changed for Germany’s version of James Bond!

The majority of this book is set in 1942 (the storyline of this series is the only one that I’ve ever known to skip about, timewise!), and near the start of the book Bernie is approached by a lawyer, Herr Doctor Heckholz, and his female client, to investigate the fact that Nazi companies have “bought” her and her husband’s Wannsee villa at a knockdown price, and jailed her husband as part of trumped up charges involving a fraud case. They want Bernie to look into these companies and their high-up Nazi directors.

Coincidentally, at a crime conference in the same villa two days later, Bernie is due to talk about a case he’s solved, giving him a chance to have a nose around. He’s also, to his irritation, given a couple of Swiss policemen to show around Berlin, including a Captain Meyer, who is also a crime novelist who wishes to pick Gunther’s detective brain. However, being Gunther, he more or less abandons them to go to the Opera alone, and heads up to speak to Heckholz about whether he will take the case. However, he discovers a lawyer who has been murdered – with a bust of Hitler (something Bernie finds somewhat amusing – the thought of him telling the police the lawyer was murdered by Hitler!) He also spots marks in the lawyer’s blood as if, in his dying moments, he was attempting to leave a name or mark as a clue – but Bernie finds it unreadable.

Bernie is next seconded from the Kripo to the War Crimes Bureau, under Josef “Joey” Goebbels, who needs his help. Goebbels’ latest starlet (and crush), Dalia Dresner, is refusing to make her next film unless her father is tracked down, and she knows Goebbels is capable of getting someone to do so. The problem is, he’s allegedly a monk in an area of Croatia that’s very volatile, controlled by the fascist militia Ustase, who are at war with both the Communist Partisans and the royalist Chetniks. The task of delivering the delicious Dalia’s letter is given to Bernie as – well, let’s face it – he always seems to deliver, AND get himself out of any tight spots while doing so. No-one will be surprised when I reveal that Bernie and Dalia get on famously, and, thanks to Bernie’s banter, develop a very intimate relationship…

Part of the reason I enjoy these books is that they often fill in gaps in my history knowledge, while providing superb entertainment (many of the characters featured are real, and their fates are revealed at the novel’s end.) For example, I had little knowledge of the situation in Croatia during WWII, and Bernie’s trip there was a real eye-opener – truly, utterly horrific…Predictably, Bernie and the sidekicks he picks up along the way see some dreadful sights, and – of course – get into a few scrapes.

There is of course a great deal more to this novel – I’ve just introduced you to the set-up. Philip Kerr is a superb plotter. Trouble arises from the Croatian trip. Certain characters are not as innocent as they appear, or present themselves. (Not just the Nazis, obviously!) Bernie Gunther, as is his habit – or weakness – falls on his sword for the sake of a woman he thinks he loves, something she claims to reciprocate. Along the way, though, he does find the time to solve some crimes…

To my surprise, I enjoyed this book a great deal more than I expected. It wasn’t as masculine as I thought it might be. It’s simply a rollicking good read, and not just for Gunther fanatics – you’d do just fine coming in cold, with this book the first in the series you’ve read. They do all tend to follow a pattern – as successful series tend to do – but I for one am not going to complain when the pattern is as attractive as this one! (And the good news is, we can expect a new one in 2016 – The Other Side Of Silence).

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Linda Boa blogs as Crimeworm.

Philip Kerr, The Lady From Zagreb (Quercus: London, 2015). 978-0399167645, 464 pp,, Hardcover.

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