A detective with his own demons to face

2009-01-14 00:00

ERNIE Gunther is one of the most interesting fictional detectives of recent times — once a policeman in Weimar Germany, then a reluctant member of the SS during the war, he has his own demons to face and a deliciously dark humour to face them with. In A Quiet Flame, he finds himself in Buenos Aires in 1950, on the run for complicated reasons to do with the name he has assumed, from the de-Nazification process in Europe.

He is keen to keep a low profile in a city and country where ex-Nazis abound with the backing of the Perón regime. Kerr gives us pictures of Juan Perón himself, Evita Perón, and a number of high-profile ex-Nazi monsters, including Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele. It makes for a cracking good read, with enough of a frisson from what we know of the real history to become utterly compelling.

Bernie is a magnet for trouble. He finds himself involved in a murder case which has an unpleasantly strong resemblance to one he failed to solve in Berlin in 1932. Of course, given where he is 18 years on, plenty of the same dramatis personae are around, not all under the same names, but once again with — for them — the comforting cloak of a protective regime. And a whole new set of secrets they will do anything not to see revealed.

Kerr has been likened to Raymond Chandler, and he has the dryness and laconic style as well as a hero with a deep sense of right and wrong. But he adds to them a political reality that is extremely powerful as he moves between Argentina in the fifties and Berlin in the thirties — both places where the unthinkable happened. Plenty of it will come dangerously close to Bernie, and to people he cares about. This is as good as they come.

Margaret von Klemperer

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