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Sunday, Jun 25, 2017
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The past and its people in hot pursuit

"If the Dead Rise Not," by Philip Kerr (Putnam, $27) Bernie Gunther, being German, cannot escape his past. He has been a Berlin police detective, hotel detective, private eye, Waffen-SS soldier, Argentine para-policeman, and a few other occupations and avocations in between. But all roads lead ineluctably back to 1930s Germany, when National Socialism was in flower. Bernie began literary life as the hard-boiled, world-weary protagonist of British novelist Philip Kerr's much-acclaimed Berlin Noir trilogy, three novels set (mostly) in the 1930s. Kerr extended that with "The One from the Other" (set largely in 1949) and "A Quiet Flame" (told in chapters that alternate between 1932 Berlin and 1950 Argentina). The sixth entry, "If the Dead Rise Not," is divided into two uneven sections devoted to 1934 Berlin and 1954 Havana. In Berlin, Bernie has left the police force, disgusted with the repression and tyranny that the Nazi regime has brought to police work as well as to every other aspect of German society. As a house detective at the luxurious Adlon Hotel, his involvement in the investigation of two murders earns him dangerous enemies, including a Jewish American gangster, Max Reles.
At the Adlon he meets another American Jew, Noreen Charalambides, a beautiful journalist hoping with her reportage to expose Germany's flagrant anti-Semitism and thereby scuttle U.S. participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. They share a bed and increasing danger until Bernie, ever the knight, effects her safe return home by agreeing to one of the many compromises that tarnish his armor over the years. In the second section, Bernie, in his mid-50s and going by the assumed name Carlos Hausner, hopes for a relatively peaceful life in Havana and maybe eventually to sneak back into Germany (he is wanted, not entirely justly, for supposed war crimes), but of course the past and the people from it reappear to put his life on its usual uneasy footing. Noreen turns up, renting Ernest Hemingway's house while he is away in Africa. So does Max, now dealing in casinos and hotels with a gaggle of other American gangsters led by Meyer Lansky. Naturally, a few more bodies turn up also. As a writer of historical thrillers, Kerr is simply a phenomenon at incorporating the reality of the past into his fiction of it. He knows, for example, what building was where at what time, who occupied it, how one got to it and what was right around the corner from it. Bernie sees himself not as a good guy, but as a guy who tried to both be and do good, but was undone by the lousy compromises he had to make when life served up too many impossible situations. That doesn't make him a bad guy - only human.

Roger K. Miller's second novel, "Dragon in Amber," will be published this year.

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